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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 9, 2014

Tim Berners-Lee’s amazingly astute 1992 article on this crazy Web thing he started

Dan Brickley points to this incredibly prescient article by Tim Berners-Lee from 1992. The World Wide Web he gets the bulk of the credit for inventing was thriving at CERN where he worked. Scientists were linking to one another’s articles without making anyone type in a squirrely Internet address. Why, over a thousand articles were hyperlinked.

And on this slim basis, Tim outlines the fundamental challenges we’re now living through. Much of the world has yet to catch up with insights he derived from the slightest of experience.

May the rest of us have even a sliver of his genius and a heaping plateful of his generosity.

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October 9, 2013

Derek Attig on the history of bookmobiles

I’m at a Harvard Library talk by Derek Attig [twitter: @bookmobility], a Ph.D. at candidate U. of Illinois Champaign/Urbana: “Here Comes the Bookmobile: How Mobile Libraries Made America.” (Bold title!) (Thank you, Office for Scholarly Communication and the Library Test Kitchen class!)

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.

In 1905 in Washington County Maryland, a woman commissioned a horse and carriage to reach far-flung areas. Five years later, the carriage was hit by a train. (The horses were fine.) She replaced it with a gas-powered vehicle. So, you can tell the story of the bookmobile as a story about machines. But a better way would be to tell it as a story of people and what they thought books could do if they put them on wheels: they thought if you moved books through space, you could make a community. The maps of book mobile routes looks like a network. “Filling space with books and linking the county together with its presence.” “This dream of connection was so powerful that it shaped how children imagined bookmobiles.” Derek shows a kid’s drawing from the 1930s, and it too looks like a community connected by a network.

It didn’t always work out that way, he says. Book mobiles were used to bring books to African Americans so that African Americans wouldn’t come to libraries. Still, the dream of networked community drove bookmobiles forward.

Derek is going to focus on three moments, he says: the birth of book mobiles in the 1890s, the role of them in the Cold War in the 1950s, and the supposed current death of book mobiles.

“Libraries must be mobilized. Books must travel more,” said Melvil Dewey. That began in earnest in the 1890s, especially in rural states with populist governments. Traveling libraries took books from a central repository and shipped them. Post Offices, general stores, and living rooms became ad hoc libraries. After a set time, the books would be shipped back. This gave a constantly refreshed stream.

Women played an enormous role in the traveling library movement. Many began as the projects of women’s clubs. They claimed this was an extension of their domestic duties, e.g., tempering male children.

Most of Derek’s work has been on the Kansas traveling library, founded in 1898, by the suffragette Mary Brown Johnston [correct?]. A woman lived on a ranch wanted to know if she could join the library. MBJ said that the traveling library needed a library club to bring he books to. Presley [lost track of who that is] says that she’s made a “circuit of our district” and found people willing to form an “association.” Derek points out the importance of libraries establishing circuits and associations. “Wherever the traveling library system is introduced, it makes friends with the people,” said [someone], and says Derek, makes friends among people.

“By the 1950s, book mobiles were at the height of their iconic power.” Children’s books and romance novels were written about them. And they were tools of diplomacy. In 1959, a book mobile from Delmar NY was lowered into a Moscow Park as part of a US exhibition. It was a huge hit. Thousands of Russians toured it. In fact, thousands of them — 75% of them — were stolen. The ALA and publishers shipped thousands more books.

In the 1960s there were US book mobiles in Mexico City, Libya, Jakarta, and more, but the largest number were in West Germany. 24 book mobiles were roaming that country, stocked with US books in German. We were at that time trying to heal the wounds of WWII and to keep West Germany firmly in the Western bloc. “The most important symbol of that process were the bookmobile’s open shelves.” European libraries generally had closed stacks and were fort-like. Still, there was some pushback. Some Germans felt it was an attempt at establishing American cultural dominance. Also, the Americans sometimes felt (as one wrote) “The type of books read fall somewhat short of the ideal.” In fact, the Germans were reading the books they want, and building the sort of community they wanted.

Where are book mobiles now? Green Day traveled in one. But there were no books in it. (There was, however, weed.) “By the 1990s, the book mobile’s iconic status had faltered.” Shrinking budgets, high gas costs, and the illusions of ubiquitous Internet access led people to think that book mobiles are archaic.

But there’s another story, in which the book mobile remains useful and surprising. At public libraries all over the country, book mobiles still travel the roads. Topeka KS just got a $200K grant to buy a new one, continuing 70 yrs of service. There was one at Burning Man.

You can even find them at the heart of the Internet. E.g., the Internet Archive. One of the advantages is that you can turn the digital works back into paper. IA has been sending out book mobiles that print public domain works into paper books. [I blogged about this ia while ago.] Google has funded a local one as well.

Derek ends by pointing to the dream of ubiquitous broadband as a continuation of the impulse behind the development of book mobiles. [Nice talk! I had no idea.]

(More at BookMobility.org.]

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July 28, 2013

The shockingly short history of the history of technology

In 1960, the academic journal Technology and Culture devoted its entire Autumn edition [1] to essays about a single work, the fifth and final volume of which had come out in 1958: A History of Technology, edited by Charles Singer, E. J. Holmyard, A. R. Hall, and Trevor I. Williams. Essay after essay implies or outright states something I found quite remarkable: A History of Technology is the first history of technology.

You’d think the essays would have some clever twist explaining why all those other things that claimed to be histories were not, perhaps because they didn’t get the concept of “technology” right in some modern way. But, no, the statements are pretty untwisty. The journal’s editor matter-of-factly claims that the history of technology is a “new discipline.”[2] Robert Woodbury takes the work’s publication as the beginning of the discipline as well, although he thinks it pales next to the foundational work of the history of science [3], a field the journal’s essays generally take as the history of technology’s older sibling, if not its parent. Indeed, fourteen years later, in 1974, Robert Multhauf wrote an article for that same journal, called “Some Observations on the State of the History of Technology,”[4] that suggested that the discipline was only then coming into its own. Why some universities have even recognized that there is such a thing as an historian of science!

The essay by Lewis Mumford, whom one might have mistaken for a prior historian of technology, marks the volumes as a first history of technology, pans them as a history of technology, and acknowledges prior attempts that border on being histories of technology. [5] His main objection to A History of Technology— and he is far from alone in this among the essays — is that the volumes don’t do the job of synthesizing the events recounted, failing to put them into the history of ideas, culture, and economics that explain both how technology took the turns that it did and what the meaning of those turns meant for human life. At least, Mumford says, these five volumes do a better job than the works of three British nineteenth century who wrote something like histories of technology: Andrew Ure, Samuel Smiles, and Charles Babbage. (Yes, that Charles Babbage.) (Multhauf points also to Louis Figuier in France, and Franz Reuleaux in Germany.[6])

Mumford comes across as a little miffed in the essay he wrote about A History of Technology, but, then, Mumford often comes across as at least a little miffed. In the 1963 introduction to his 1934 work, Technics and Civilization, Mumford seems to claim the crown for himself, saying that his work was “the first to summarize the technical history of the last thousand years of Western Civilization…” [7]. And, indeed, that book does what he claims is missing from A History of Technology, looking at the non-technical factors that made the technology socially feasible, and at the social effects the technology had. It is a remarkable work of synthesis, driven by a moral fervor that borders on the rhetoric of a prophet. (Mumford sometimes crossed that border; see his 1946 anti-nuke essay, “Gentlemen: You are Mad!” [8]) Still, in 1960 Mumford treated A History of Technology as a first history of technology not only in the academic journal Technology and Culture, but also in The New Yorker, claiming that until recently the history of technology had been “ignored,” and “…no matter what the oversights or lapses in this new “History of Technology, one must be grateful that it has come into existence at all.”[9]

So, there does seem to be a rough consensus that the first history of technology appeared in 1958. That the newness of this field is shocking, at least to me, is a sign of how dominant technology as a concept — as a frame — has become in the past couple of decades.


[1] Techology and Culture. Autumn, 1960. Vol. 1, Issue 4.

[2] Melvin Kranzberg. “Charles Singer and ‘A History of Technology’” Techology and Culture Autumn, 1960. Vol. 1, Issue 4. pp. 299-302. p. 300.

[3] Robert S. Woodbury. “The Scholarly Future of the History of Technology” Techology and Culture Autumn, 1960. Vol. 1, Issue 4. pp. 345-8. P. 345.

[4] Robert P. Multhauf, “Some Observations on the State of the History of Technology.” Techology and Culture. Jan, 1974. Vol. 15, no. 1. pp. 1-12

[5] Lewis Mumford. “Tools and the Man.” Techology and Culture Autumn, 1960. Vol. 1, Issue 4. pp. 320-334.

[6] Multhauf, p. 3.

[7] Lewis Mumford. Technics and Civilization. (Harcourt Brace, 1934. New edition 1963), p. xi.

[8] Lewis Mumford. “Gentlemen: You Are Mad!” Saturday Review of Literature. March 2, 1946, pp. 5-6.

[9] Lewis Mumford. “From Erewhon to Nowhere.” The New Yorker. Oct. 8, 1960. pp. 180-197.

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January 25, 2013

October 3, 2012

[2b2k] Our birds nest future

The always-readworthy Jeremy Wagstaff has a delightful, brief essay that uses our profound ignorance of the quotidian life of the past as a reminder of just how awful we are at predicting — or envisioning — our future.

I also like Jeremy’s essay because I find that I am much more interested in histories of daily life than in broad, sweeping explanations. I consider my lack of broad sweepiness to be a weakness, so I’m not recommending it. But I’m fascinated by how different our lived lives are and have been. And will be.

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March 23, 2012

VisiCalc: The first killer app’s unveiling

VisiCalc was the first killer app. It became the reason people bought a personal computer.

You can read a paper presented in 1979 by one of its creators, Bob Frankston, in which he explains what it does and why it’s better than learning BASIC. Yes, VisiCalc’s competitor was a programming language. (Here’s Bob reading part I of his paper.)

Bob of course acknowledges Dan Bricklin as VisiCalc’s original designer. (Here’s Dan re-reading the original announcement.) Bob and Dan founded the company Software Arts, which developed VisiCalc. Since then, both have spent their time in commercial and public-spirited efforts trying to make the Internet a better place for us all.

visicalc screenshot
from wikipedia

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November 19, 2011

[avignon] [2b2k] Robert Darnton on the history of copyright , open access, the dpla…

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.

We begin with a report on a Ministerial meeting yesterday here on culture — a dialogue among the stakeholders on the Internet. [No users included, I believe.] All agreed on the principles proposed at Deauville: It is a multi-stakeholder ecosystem that complies with law. In this morning’s discussion, I was struck by the convergence: we all agree about remunerating copyright holders. [Selection effect. I favor copyright and remunerating rights holders, but not as the supreme or exclusive value.] We agree that there are more legal alternatives. We agree that the law needs to be enforced. No one argued with that. [At what cost?] And we all agree we need international cooperation, especially to fight piracy.

Now Robert Darnton, Harvard Librarian, gives an invited talk about the history of copyright.

Darnton: I am grateful to be here. And especially grateful you did not ask me to talk about the death of the book. The book is not dead. More books are being produced in print and online every year than in the previous year. This year, more than 1 million new books will be produced. China has doubled its production of books in the past ten years. Brazil has a booming book industry. Even old countries like the US find book production is increasing. We should not bemoan the death of the book.

Should we conclude that all is well in the world of books? Certainly not. Listen to the lamentations of authors, publishers, booksellers. They are clearly frightened and confused. The ground is shifting beneath their feet and they don’t know where to stake a claim. The pace of tech is terrifying. What took millennia, then centuries, then decades, now happens all the time. Homesteading in the new info ecology is made difficult by uncertainty about copyright and economics.

Throughout early modern Europe, publishing was dominated by guilds of booksellers and printers. Modern copyright did not exist, but booksellers accumulated privileges, which Condorcet objected to. These privileges (AKA patents) gave them the exclusive rights to reproduce texts, with the support of the state. The monarchy in the 17th century eliminated competitors, especially ones in the provinces, reinforcing the guild, thus gaining control of publishing. But illegal production throve. Avignon was a great center of privacy in the 18th century because it was not French. It was surrounded by police intercepting the illegal books. It took a revolution to break the hegemony of the Parisian guild. For two years after the Bastille, the French press enjoyed liberty. Condorcet and others had argued for the abolition of constraints on the free exchange of ideas. It was a utopian vision that didn’t last long.

Modern copyright began with the 1793 French copyright law that established a new model in Europe. The exclusive right to sell a text was limited to the author for lifetime + 10 years. Meanwhile, the British Statute of Anne in 1710 created copyright. Background: The stationers’ monopoly required booksellers — and all had to be members — to register. The oligarchs of the guild crushed their competitors through monopolies. They were so powerful that they provoked results even within the book trade. Parliament rejected the guild’s attempt to secure the licensing act in 1695. The British celebrate this as the beginning of the end of pre-publication censorship.

The booksellers lobbied for the modern concept of copyright. For new works: 14 years, renewable once. At its origin, copyright law tried to strike a balance between the public good and the private benefit of the copyright owner. According to a liberal view, Parliament got the balance right. But the publishers refused to comply, invoking a general principle inherent in common law: When an author creates work, he acquires an unlimited right to profit from his labor. If he sold it, the publisher owned it in perpetuity. This was Diderot’s position. The same argument occurred in France and England.

In England, the argument culminated in a 1774 Donaldson vs. Beckett that reaffirmed 14 years renewable once. Then we Americans followed in our Constitution and in the first copyright law in 1790 (“An act for the encouragement of learning”, echoing the British 1710 Act): 14 years renewable once.

The debate is still alive. The 1998 copyright extension act in the US was considerably shaped by Jack Valenti and the Hollywood lobby. It extended copyright to life + 70 (or for corporations: life + 95). We are thus putting most literature out of the public domain and into copyright that seems perpetual. Valenti was asked if he favored perpetual copyright and said “No. Copyright should last forever minus one day.”

This history is meant to emphasize the interplay of two elements that go right through the copyright debate: A principle directed toward the public gain vs. self-interest for private gain. It would be wrong-headed and naive to only assert the former. B ut to assert only the latter would be cynical. So, do we have the balance right today?

Consider knowledge and power. We all agree that patents help, but no one would want the knowledge of DNA to be exploited as private property. The privitization of knowledge has become an enclosure movement. Consider academic periodicals. Most knowledge first appears in digitized periodicals. The journal article is the principle outlet for the sciences, law, philosophy, etc. Journal publishers therefore control access to most of the knowledge being created, and they charge a fortune. The price of academic journals rose ten times faster than the rate of inflation in the 1990s. The J of Comparative Neurology is $29,113/year. The Brain costs $23,000. The average list price in chemistry is over $3,000. Most of the research was subsidized by tax payers. It belongs in the public domain. But commercial publishers have fenced off parts of that domain and exploited it. Their profit margins runs as high as 40%. Why aren’t they constrained by the laws of supply and domain? Because they have crowded competitors out, and the demand is not elastic: Research libraries cannot cancel their subscriptions without an uproar from the faculty. Of course, professors and students produced the research and provided it for free to the publishers. Academics are therefore complicit. They advance their prestige by publishing in journals, but they fail to understand the damage they’re doing to the Republic of Letters.

How to reverse this trend? Open access journals. Journals that are subsidized at the production end and are made free to consumers. They get more readers, too, which is not surprising since search engines index them and it’s easy for readers to get to them. Open Access is easy access, and the ease has economic consequences. Doctors, journalists, researchers, housewives, nearly everyone wants information fast and costless. Open Access is the answer. It is a little simple, but it’s the direction we have to take to address this problem at least in academic journals.

But the Forum is thinking about other things. I admire Google for its technical prowess, but also because it demonstrated that free access to info can be profitable. But it ran into problems when it began to digitize books and make them available. It got sued for alleged breach of copyright. It tried to settle by turning it into a gigantic business and sharing the profits with the authors and publishers who sued them. Libraries had provided the books. Now they’d have to buy them back at a price set by Google. Google was fencing off access to knowledge. A federal judge rejected it because, among other points, it threatened to create a monopoly. By controlling access to books, Google occupied a position similar to that of the guilds in London and Paris.

So why not create a library as great as anything imagined by Google, but that would make works available to users free of charge? Harvard held a workshop on Oct. 1 2010 to explore this. Like Condorcet, a utopian fantasy? But it turns out to be eminently reasonable. A steering committee, a secretariat, 6 workgroups were established. A year later we launched the Digital Public Library of America at a conference hosted by the major cultural institutions in DC, and in April in 2013 we’ll have a preliminary version of it.

Let me emphasize two points. 1. The DPLA will serve a wide an varied constituency throughout the US. It will be a force in education, and will provide a stimulus to the economy by putting knowledge to work. 2. It will spread to everyone on the globe. The DPLA’s technical infrastructure is being designed to be interoperable with Europeana, which is aggregating the digital collections of 27 companies. National digital libraries are sprouting up everywhere, even Mongolia. We need to bring them together. Books have never respected boundaries. Within a few decades, we’ll have worldwide access to all the books in the world, and images, recordings, films, etc.

Of course a lot remains to be done. But, the book is dead? Long live the book!

Q: It is patronizing to think that the USA and Europe will set the policy here. India and China will set this policy.

A: We need international collaboration. And we need an infrastructure that is interoperable.

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February 4, 2011

Gladwell proves too much

Malcolm Gladwell is going further out on his cranky branch. His reading of the role of social media in Tunisia and Egypt actually seems to lead to conclusions that I think he would acknowledge are extreme and extremely unlikely. (I look at his new post in some detail after the big box below.)

Gladwell is in the unfortunate position of having published a New Yorker article dismissive of the effect of social media on social protest movements just weeks before the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts. Now Gladwell has posted a 200-word commentary that maintains his position without emendation. (Mathew Ingram has an excellent response to Gladwell’s latest post.)

I was among the many who replied to Gladwell’s initial article. I began that piece by trying to outline Gladwell’s argument, in a neutral and fair way. This is what I came up with:

In 1960, four college students staged a sit-in in NC. Within a week, sit-ins had started to spread like “a fever.”

Gladwell now states the claim he is going debunk: “The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism.” He then points to world events that have been claimed to support that view.

But, (he continues) those events were not really brought about by social media. Why would we think they were? It’s not due just to over-enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after the civil rights movement, “we seem to have forgotten what activism is.” It is really our understanding of activism that is at issue.

Now, back to the sit-ins. They were dangerous. Civil rights activism took courage. That courage required strong ties to other activists. This was true not just of the civil rights movement in the US, but is a general characteristic of activism.

But, “The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all.” Social media (Twitter, Facebook) are all about weak ties. Weak ties are “in many ways a wonderful thing…But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.” Social media activism works when little is asked of people.

Activism requires not just strong ties, but also strong, centralized, hierarchical organization. Not networks. You need a hierarchy “if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment…”

As an example, Gladwell ridicules the opening story in Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, about how “the crowd” got a smart phone returned to its rightful owner. “A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls.”

Now apply that to Tunisia and Egypt. You would think that these were pretty dramatic counter-examples. Gladwell does not think so. In fact, his recent post reads as if he’s exasperated that anyone is still bothering to disagree with him:

But surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented.

Even the fact the post is only 200 words long gives the impression that the two Mideast upheavals are barely worth his time.

Let’s look at each of the post’s two paragraphs.

Paragraph #1. This is a paragraph of ridicule: Paying attention to social media is like hearing a famous revolutionary statement from Mao Zedong, paying scant attention to its content and import, and instead getting all excited because of the medium he used.

Yes, it is possible to pay too much attention to the medium as opposed to the message. But, as with so many arguments by ridicule, this one doesn’t advance our thought at all. We can counter by trying to make the analogy more exact: If in 1935 Mao had said “Power springs from the barrel of a gun,” and it had spread through, say, a new-fangled telephone tree so that it reached beyond the boundaries of government-controlled radio, and if that statement had signaled a turn to violent uprising, it would be irresponsible to ignore the role of the medium in the dissemination of the message. Or, if government printers had in the 1960s refused to publish the Little Red Book that spread that quote, the lack of a medium for it would surely be worth discussing. Media play an important role. When the medium is new, it is right to examine that role. That is not to say that the medium is a sufficient cause, or is the only thing worth discussing. But who has attributed the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings solely to the existence of social media?

Gladwell’s argument in this first paragraph therefore seems to me to be: (1) Ultimately an argument against media having any role or significance in political movements; (2) An argument against a strawman; (3) Less an argument at all than a “Hey you kids, get off my lawn” statement of alignment.

Paragraph #2. Gladwell reiterates his point that political activism requires strong ties, and social media only provides weak ties. He defends these contentions by using the word “surely,” which almost always indicates that the speaker has no evidence to present that could in fact make us sure: “But surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another.”

It is not at all obvious that this is the least interesting fact. Social media are a new variable. Because history is so damn particular, contingent, and emergent, we can never be entirely sure which new variables matter. The anti-Mubarak demonstrations have been (apparently) heavily supported by Egypt’s trade unions, for example; perhaps that’s worth exploring. Declaring the possible role of social media the “least interesting fact” seems based either on an a priori belief that (a) media never have an important role in social movements, or (b) our new social media can have no role because of Gladwell’s theory that they can’t supply the strong ties necessary for activism. The first alternative seems too silly to defend. If it’s the second, then I would have thought a reasonable response from Gladwell would have been along these lines: “I’ve put forward a bold hypothesis about the ineffectiveness of social media. That hypothesis is based primarily on some historical examples. We have some new examples before us. Let us examine them to see if they indeed support my hypothesis — especially since so many have claimed that this new evidence refutes that hypothesis.” Instead we get all the power a confidently rendered “surely” can bring.

But the second paragraph is not over. Gladwell now gives examples of historical revolutions that succeeded before the development of the Net. The conclusion warranted from this evidence is that no particular medium is necessary for a revolution: We know you can have a revolution without, say, telephones because we’ve had many such revolutions. But this is a really bad way to argue about historical explanations. Many wars have ended without any atomic bombs being used, so we might as well say that historians ought not to consider the effect dropping a-bombs had on ending WWII. No, if we want to understand an event, we have to understand it within its history. The events in Tunisia and Egypt are occurring within a history in which social media are being used for among the first times. That makes the question of the role of social media interesting, and, under most theories of history — ones in which the nature of the contemporary media plays a contributing part — important.

Gladwell’s second paragraph therefore “proves” too much. But he backs off the obvious silliness of where his arguments lead by concluding: “People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.” He thus proposes a sort of historical determinism: No matter what the means of communication, those who want a revolution will have a revolution. But: (1) How do we know this is true? (2) The means of communication may well affect (a) when it happens, (b) how it happens, (c) who participates, (d) its success, (e) how the world reacts, and (f) how the participants view themselves as a social group. That last point I acknowledge is the squishiest of them, but it may have the most lasting effect, helping to shape the governmental structure that emerges post-revolution: “We are a mob inspired by the incredible leaders who have the megaphones” might tend toward differences in governance than “We are a connected, empowered network.” In any case, it seems to me that investigating the role of social media is not an activity beneath contempt.

And that’s why I’ve written a post ten times longer than the one it’s discussing. Gladwell — with his amazing ability to illuminate difficult matters — is not merely splashing cold water on an overheated subject, but is trying to drown the subject entirely. Because we don’t yet understand the effect social media are having on social movements, it is unhelpful to have such a powerful voice ridiculing the effort to trace their effects. Gladwell’s attempt to undo unwarranted enthusiasm comes across instead as an argument for diminished nuance. That is exactly what Gladwell is decrying in our discourse, and is not what his body of writing has exemplified.

So, I come out of his brief post wondering how Gladwell would answer the following questions:

1. Does Gladwell believe that the means of communication never has any effect on any social protest movement? (“…in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice.”)

2. If he believes that the means of communication can have some effect, then does he believe that some media that do not create strong ties — radio, newspapers, tv, etc. — are worth considering when trying to understand social protest movements? If so, then why are networked social media not worth considering?

3. If social media are worth considering as playing some role in social protests, exactly what role and how important? A role so trivial that it is literally the least interesting factor historians and analysts should be looking at? Or is it of more importance than that, but just not anywhere near worth the amount of attention it’s been getting?

4. On what does he base these views? A theory about how social protest movements have worked and must work? Does he hold this theory as so obviously true that all events must now be interpreted within it, or is he willing to examine events to see if they support or contradict his theory?

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August 6, 2010

Who writes history?

History may only rarely be written by the losers, but it is always written by the writers.

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