Looking forward to seeing local friends old and new there.
(Or, if you like, tune in live on Ustream. If I have the chance I’ll post a link here.)
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Looking forward to seeing local friends old and new there.
(Or, if you like, tune in live on Ustream. If I have the chance I’ll post a link here.)
At the heart of the Internet business is one of the great business fallacies of our time: that the Web, with all its targeting abilities, can be a more efficient, and hence more profitable, advertising medium than traditional media. Facebook, with its 900 million users, valuation of around $100 billion, and the bulk of its business in traditional display advertising, is now at the heart of the heart of the fallacy.
The daily and stubborn reality for everybody building businesses on the strength of Web advertising is that the value of digital ads decreases every quarter, a consequence of their simultaneous ineffectiveness and efficiency. The nature of people’s behavior on the Web and of how they interact with advertising, as well as the character of those ads themselves and their inability to command real attention, has meant a marked decline in advertising’s impact.
This is the first time I have read anything from a major media writer (and Michael is very much that — in fact I believe he is the best in the biz) that is in full agreement with The Advertising Bubble, my chapter on this very subject in The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge. A sample:
One might think all this personalized advertising must be pretty good, or it wouldn’t be such a hot new business category. But that’s only if one ignores the bubbly nature of the craze, or the negative demand on the receiving end for most of advertising’s goods. In fact, the results of personalized advertising, so far, have been lousy for actual persons…
Tracking and “personalizing”—the current frontier of online advertising—probe the limits of tolerance. While harvesting mountains of data about individuals and signaling nothing obvious about their methods, tracking and personalizing together ditch one of the few noble virtues to which advertising at its best aspires: respect for the prospect’s privacy and integrity, which has long included a default assumption of anonymity.
Ask any celebrity about the price of fame and they’ll tell you: it’s anonymity. This wouldn’t be a Faustian bargain (or a bargain at all) if anonymity did not have real worth. Tracking, filtering and personalizing advertising all compromise our anonymity, even if no PII (Personally Identifiable Information) is collected. Even if these systems don’t know us by name, their hands are still in our pants…
The distance between what tracking does and what users want, expect and intend is so extreme that backlash is inevitable. The only question is how much it will damage a business that is vulnerable in the first place.
The first section of the book opens with a retrospective view of the present from a some point in the near future — say, five or ten years out. A relevant sample:
After the social network crash of 2013, when it became clear that neither friendship nor sociability were adequately defined or managed through proprietary and contained systems (no matter how large they might be), individuals began to assert their independence, and to zero-base their social networking using their own tools, and asserting their own policies regarding engagement.
Customers now manage relationships in their own ways, using standardized tools that embrace the complexities of relationship—including needs for privacy (and, in some cases, anonymity). Thus loyalty to vendors now has genuine meaning, and goes as deep as either party cares to go. In some (perhaps most) cases this isn’t very deep, while in others it can get quite involved.
When I first wrote that, I said 2012. But I decided that was too aggressive, and went with the following year. Maybe I was right in the first place. Time will tell.
Meanwhile, here’s what Michael says about the utopian exhaust Facebook and its “ecosystem” are smoking:
Well, it does have all this data. The company knows so much about so many people that its executives are sure that the knowledge must have value (see “You Are the Ad,” by Robert D. Hof, May/June 2011).
If you’re inside the Facebook galaxy (a constellation that includes an ever-expanding cloud of associated ventures) there is endless chatter about a near-utopian (but often quasi-legal or demi-ethical) new medium of marketing. “If we just … if only … when we will …” goes the conversation. If, for instance, frequent-flyer programs and travel destinations actually knew when you were thinking about planning a trip. Really we know what people are thinking about—sometimes before they know! If a marketer could identify the person who has the most influence on you … If a marketer could introduce you to someone who would relay the marketer’s message … get it? No ads, just friends! My God!
But so far, the sweeping, basic, transformative, and simple way to connect buyer to seller and then get out of the way eludes Facebook.
The buyer is a person. That person does not require either a social network or absolutely-informed guesswork to know who she is or what she wants to buy. Obviously advertising can help. It always has. But totally personalized advertising is icky and oxymoronic. And, after half a decade or more at the business of making maximally-personalized ads, the main result is what Michael calls “the desultory ticky-tacky kind that litters the right side of people’s Facebook profiles.”
That’s one of mine on the right. It couldn’t be more wasted and wrong. Let’s take it from the top.
First, Robert Scoble is an old friend and a good guy. But I couldn’t disagree with him more on the subject of Facebook and the alleged virtues of the fully followed life. (Go to this Gillmor Gang, starting about an hour in, to see Robert and I go at it about this.) Clearly Facebook doesn’t know about that. Nor does any advertiser, I would bet. In any case, Robert likes so many things that his up-thumb has no value to me.
I have no interest in Social Referrals, and if Facebook followed what I’ve written on the subject of “social” (as defined by Facebook and its marketing cohorts), it wouldn’t imagine I would be interested in extole.com.
I’m 64, but married. “Boyfriend wanted” is a low-rent fail as well as an insult.
I get the old yearbook pitch every time I go on Facebook, which is as infrequently as I possibly can. (There are people I can only reach that way, which is why I bother.) I don’t even need to click on the the ad to discover that, as I suspected, 60s.yearbookarchives.com is a front for the scammy Classmates.com.
I’ve never been fly flishing, and haven’t fished since I was a kid, many decades ago.
And I don’t want more credit cards, of any kind, regardless of Scoble’s position on Capital One.
In a subchapter of The Filter Bubble titled “A Bad Theory of You,” Eli Pariser calls both Facebook’s and Google’s data-based assumptions about us “pretty poor representations of who we are, in part because there is no one set of data that describes who we are.” He also says that at best they put us into the uncanny valley — a “place where something is lifelike but not convincingly alive, and it gives people the creeps.” But what you see on the right isn’t the best, and it’s not uncanny. It’s typical, and it sucks, even if it does bring Facebook a few $billion per year in click-through-based revenues.
The amazing thing here is that business keeps trying to improve advertising — and always by making it more personal — as if that’s the only way we can get to Michael’s “sweeping, basic, transformative, and simple way to connect buyer to seller and then get out of the way.” Three problems here:
Don Marti, former Editor-in-Chief of Linux Journal and a collaborator on the advertising chapters in my book, nails the first two problems in a pair of posts. In the first, Ad targeting – better is worse? he says,
Now, as targeting for online advertising gets more and more accurate, the signal is getting lost. On the web, how do you tell a massive campaign from a well-targeted campaign? And if you can’t spot the “waste,” how do you pick out the signal?
I’m thinking about this problem especially from an IT point of view. Much of the value of an IT product is network value, and economics of scale mean that a product with massive adoption can have much higher ROI than a niche product…. So, better targeting means that online advertising carries less signal. You could be part of the niche on which your vendor is dumping its last batch of a “boat anchor” product. This is kind of a paradox: the better online advertising is, the less valuable it is. Companies that want to send a signal are going to have to find a less fake-out-able medium.
In the second, Perfectly targeted advertising would be perfectly worthless, which he wrote in response to Michael’s essay, he adds this:
The more targeted that advertising is, the less effective that it is. Internet technology can be more efficient at targeting, but the closer it gets to perfectly tracking users, the less profitable it has to become.
The profits are in advertising that informs, entertains, or creates a spectacle—because that’s what sends a signal. Targeting is a dead end. Maybe “Do Not Track” will save online advertising from itself.
John Battelle, who is both a first-rate journalist and a leader in the online advertising industry, says this in Facebook’s real question: What’s the native model?:
Facebook makes 82% of its money by selling targeted display advertising – boxes on the top and right side of the site (it’s recently added ads at logout, and in newsfeeds). Not a particularly unique model on its face, but certainly unique underneath: Because Facebook knows so much about each person on its service, it can target in ways Google and others can only dream about. Over the years, Facebook has added new advertising products based on the unique identity, interest, and relationship data it owns: Advertisers can incorporate the fact that a friend of a friend “likes” a product, for example. Or they can incorporate their own marketing content into their ads, a practice known as “conversational marketing” that I’ve been on about for seven or so years (for more on that, see my post Conversational Marketing Is Hot – Again. Thanks Facebook!).
But as many have pointed out, Facebook’s approach to advertising has a problem: People don’t (yet) come to Facebook with the intention of consuming quality content (as they do with media sites), or finding an answer to a question (as they do at Google search). Yet Facebook’s ad system combines both those models – it employs a display ad unit (the foundation of brand-driven media sites) as well as a sophisticated ad-buying platform that’d be familiar to anyone who’s ever used Google AdWords.
I’m not sure how many advertisers use Facebook, but it’s probably a fair guess to say the number approaches or crosses the hundreds of thousands. That’s about how many used Overture and Google a decade ago. The big question is simply this: Do those Facebook ads work as well or better than other approaches? If the answer is yes, the question of valuation is rather moot. If the answer is no…Facebook’s got some work to do.
But Facebook isn’t the real issue here. Working only the sell side of the marketplace is the issue. It’s now time to work the buy side.
The simple fact is that we need to start equipping buyers with their own tools for connecting with sellers, and for engaging in respectful and productive ways. That is, to improve the ability of demand to drive supply, and not to constantly goose up supply to drive demand, and failing 99.x% of the time.
This is an old imperative.
In The Cluetrain Manifesto, which Chris Locke, David Weinberger, Rick Levine and I wrote in 1999, we laid into business — and marketing in particular — for failing to grok the fact that in networked markets, which the Internet gave us, individuals should lead, rather than just follow. So, since business failed to get Cluetrain’s message, I started ProjectVRM in mid-2006 at Harvard’s Berkman Center. The idea was to foster development of tools that make customers both independent of vendors, and better able to engage with vendors. That is, for demand to drive supply, personally. (VRM stands for Vendor Relationship Management.)
Imagine being able to:
Today there are dozens of VRM developers working at all that stuff and more — to open floodgates of economic possibility when demand drives supply personally, rather than “socially” as part of some ad-funded Web giant’s wet dream. (And socially in the genuine sense, in which each of us knows who our friends, relatives and other associates really are, and in what contexts our actual social connections apply.) I report on those, and the huge implications of their work, in The Intention Economy.
Here’s the thing, and why now is the time to point this out: most of those developers have a hell of a time getting laid by VCs, which on the whole have their heads stuck in a calf-cow model of the Web, and can’t imagine a way to improve the marketplace that does not require breeding yet another cow, or creating yet another ranch for dependent customers. Maybe now that the bloom is off Facebook’s rose, and the Filter Bubble is ready to burst, they can start looking at possibilities over here on the demand side.
So this post is an appeal to investors. Start thinking outside the cow, and outside the ranch. If you truly believe in free markets, then start believing in free customers, and in the development projects that make them not only free, but able to drive sales at a 100% rate, and to form relationships that are worthy of the word.
Today is the official release date for The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge, my new book from Harvard Business Review Press. It’s been available from Amazon for the last couple of weeks, and is already doing well.
There are two reviews there so far (both 5 stars), and yesterday Oliver Marks gave the book a big thumbs up at ZDNet. He calls it “a thoughtful, hype free book worth reading about digital marketing, the relationships we have with vendors and a vision for a better future where we have greater control of our personal data.” Oliver also gives props to The Cluetrain Manifesto, correctly surmising that one motivation behind the VRM work this book describes was the getting business back on the track down which Cluetrain pointed, more than twelve years ago:
I normally steer clear of utopian futurism, which Searls freely admits he is practicing in ‘The Intention Manifesto’, but given the track record and respect ‘Cluetrain’ has, along with my familiarity with Searls and colleagues great work around ‘Vendor Relationship Management‘ over the last five years this book deserves to be taken seriously.
Cluetrain author Chris Locke commented on my ‘The Groundswell of Social Media Backlash‘ post here in May of 2009, which lamented the quality of clumsy social media marketing
I wrote a goodly chunk of The Cluetrain Manifesto and I hate seeing it invoked to hawk the same old crap the same old way.
The Intention Economy gets perspectives back on track with a credible vision of a world where you are in complete control of your digital persona and grant permission for vendors to access it on your terms and pitch bids for products or services you are interested in buying…
Yesterday we had a great meeting of VRM folk here in Silicon Valley, in advance of IIW — the Internet Identity Workshop — at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. (Big thanks to the kind folks at Ericsson for providing us the time and space for that in their terrific facility in San Jose.) Among other things we came up with a long list of discussion and development topics for IIW — an unconference where participants make their own agenda.
Looking forward to seeing many of you there.
Music was a huge part of my life when I was growing up. It’s still big, but not the same. My life today does not have a soundtrack. As a kid my life was accompanied by music from start to finish. At that finish was another start, as a grown-up. From that point forward, music was less of a soundtrack and more of a break from conversations and silence, and a devotion of its own. The transition was not a sharp one, but rather a growing independence from music radio. Accompanying me the whole way, though I hardly knew it, was Carole King.
She was the composer behind dozens of songs I still hum or sing along to. She wrote or co-wrote 118 Billboard top 100 songs, between 1955 and 1999. Though I always enjoyed her music and appreciated her talent, I hadn’t thought much about why they were appealing before listening this morning to this Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross (who, it turns out, was a neighbor of Carole’s when they were both growing up in Brooklyn). When I heard that some old videos of Carole had leaked out on YouTube, I went there and was blown away by this performance of Chains, a hit she and Jerry Goffin wrote for the Cookies, which was then Little Eva‘s back-up group.
What you see on that video is pure fun. The song is a simple one, almost a throw-away. But the energy is amazing. Watching and listening to that performance, it’s hard not to fall in love with her. The Carole King I got to know through Tapestry, and other mature works, was more seasoned and complete. But what I see here is something I also realized I knew all along: that her work was also play.
I’m also sold on her memoir, A Natural Woman. Looking forward to checking it out.
Amazon is now shipping my new book, The Intention Economy. Yes, the Kindle version too. They even have the first chapter available for free. You can “look inside” as well.
Thanks to Amazon’s search, you can even find stuff that’s not in the index, such as the acknowledgements. Those include a lot of people, including everybody who has ever been active on the ProjectVRM list.
The book isn’t for me. It’s for customers. All customers, that is. Not just the ones buying the book. The first paragraph of the Introduction explains,
This book stands with the customer. This is out of necessity, not sympathy. Over the coming years customers will be emancipated from systems built to control them. They will become free and independent actors in the marketplace, equipped to tell vendors what they want, how they want it, where and when—even how much they’d like to pay—outside of any vendor’s system of customer control. Customers will be able to form and break relationships with vendors, on customers’ own terms, and not just on the take-it-or-leave-it terms that have been pro forma since Industry won the Industrial Revolution.
That’s what the VRM development community has been working toward since I launched ProjectVRM at the Berkman Center in 2006. Now that community is getting kinda large. Here at the European Identity and Cloud Conference (#EIC12) in Munich, I have met or learned about a bunch of VRM developers I hadn’t known before. Pretty soon I won’t be able to keep up, and that’s a good thing.
The book has four main parts:
In a way it follows up on work begun with The Cluetrain Manifesto. The subtitle there was The End of Business as Usual. The subhead for The Intention Economy is When Customers Take Charge. Hey, when one thing ends, another must begin. This is it.
We’re not there yet. If The Intention Economy speeds things up, it will do its job.
That’s what many thought when they first saw the poster for Hassle House, in Durham, North Carolina, back in ’76 or so. As soon as any of the posters went up, they disappeared, becoming instant collectors’ items. At the time, all I wanted was to hire the cartoonist who did it, so he could illustrate some of the ads I was creating for a local audio shop. That cartoonist was the polymath Ray Simone, who went on to become the creative leader of Hodskins Simone & Searls (HS&S), the advertising agency I co-founded with Ray and David Hodskins, in 1978, and which thrived in North Carolina and Silicon Valley for the next two decades.
When I put up Remembering Ray, which (among much else) expressed my wish to re-surface the Hassle House poster, Jay Cunningham said in a comment that he could scan his copy. Which he did, and the results are here. In another comment Rob Gringle gives more of the back-story than I had known at the time.
Before HS&S, David and Ray were both with a small “mutilple media studio” called Solar Plexus Enterprises, which grew out of the Duke Media Center. Also there was Helen Hudson Whiting, who was a first-rate epicure as well as the fastest and most capable typesetter I had ever known. I just looked Helen up and found this nice write-up from Duke Magazine Books:
|In Helen’s Kitchen: A Philosophy of Food
By Helen Hudson Whiting. Regulator Bookshop, 2000. 241 pages. $17.95.
In the text below is this:
Helen Hudson Whiting ’75 was, among other things, a bookseller and co-owner of Durham’s Regulator Bookshop, a reader, a writer, and an amateur chef. For nineteen years, she wrote food commentaries for Triangle area publications: first for WDBS-FM’s The Guide, and then for The Independent.
In Helen’s Kitchen, organized posthumously and edited by her friends and colleagues, features an eclectic selection of these columns, as well as remembrances from people who knew Whiting and cherished her enterprising, adventurous culinary attitude and her zest for pleasure and her keen intellect.
I worked with Ray, Helen and David at Solar Plexus before we founded HS&S, and Helen continued to work alongside the new agency, doing most of our typesetting. So she became a good friend as well.
But that’s not my point here. My point is that ours was a special community, and at the beginning of many things, although we didn’t know it at the time.
At Ray’s memorial gathering in Pacifica last Sunday, Steve Tulsky made that point beautifully. He said our artsy-hippie community in Durham and Chapel Hill back then was a special group. Much was born there, in music, art, performance, writing, publishing, business, events, and other fields. The Independent, modeled by The Guide, is still going strong. So is the Regulator Bookshop. WDBS is long gone. So are WQDR and WRDU (as what they were then, anyway), which carried forward the radio torch WDBS lit when it went on in 1971. But their spirits survive in Good Radio everywhere. The Festival for the Eno, still going strong, began as the Folklife Festival, in 1976, on the country’s bicentennial. WDBS was highly involved, as the station broadcasting the many musical acts playing there. (Perhaps some old tapes still survive.)
While I was working with David, Ray and Helen at Solar Plexus in ’77, I also worked with the Psychical Research Foundation, which studied scientifically evidence for life after death, and was located at Duke University. The PRF spun off of the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man, led by J. B. Rhine, who launched the whole parapsychology field out of research he conducted at Duke in the 1930. Among the many decendents of that work is the Institute of Noetic Sciences, headed by Marilyn Schlitz, another member of our community back in the decade.
Here’s another weird connection. One of the central institutions of that time in Durham was the Durham Bulls single-A baseball team, which played at an old athletic field surrounded by brick tobacco warehouses. It was a special team at a special time and place. You might remember the movie about it.
Anyway, I just wanted to bring back to the foreground some of what we’ve lost or forgotten from that wonderful formative period in so many lives, and in so many ways.
Bruce and I were frequent correspondents for many years, starting the early ’70s, when Bruce began publishing his FM Atlas, an authoritative compilation of technical details for every FM station in the U.S. — and an essential handbook for everyone who loved to listen to far-away FM radio stations. Those people are called DXers, and I was one of them.
From my homes in New Jersey and North Carolina, I logged many hundreds of FM and TV stations whose signals skipped off the ionosphere’s sporadic E layer. If you’ve ever been surprised to hear on your FM radio a station from halfway across the country, you were DXing.
For DXers, catching far-away stations is kind of like fishing. You don’t want to catch just the easy ones. That’s one reason FM and TV DXing was more fun than AM and shortwave DXing (at least for some of us). AM and shortwave depend on the ionosphere for distant coverage as a matter of course. Back before the AM band became a crowded mess, “clear channel” stations like WSM in Nashville and KSL in Salt Lake City could be heard all across the continent at night, because there was nothing else on their frequencies. WSM’s Grand Ole Opry, heard every night on radios in rural areas throughout The South, literally made country music. (I listened in New Jersey, carefully turning my radio to “null out” interference from New York’s WNBC, now WFAN, which was right next to WSM on the dial.)
In its heyday (or heydecade), DXing on FM was about hooking relatively rare and slightly exotic fish. The best months to fish were in late spring and summer, when warm calm summer mornings would bring tropospheric (or “tropo”) conditions, in which FM and VHF-TV signals would travel greater distances than their normal line-of-sight propagation provided. Thus my home in Chapel Hill, NC was often treated to signals from hundreds of miles away. I recall days when I’d pick up WDUQ from the Pittsburgh on 90.5 with the antenna pointed north, then spin the antenna west to get WETS from Johnson City, Tennessee on 89.5, then spin just north of east to get WTGM (now WHRV) from Hampton Roads, Virginia, on the same channel.
Tropo is cool, but the best FM fishing is in sporadic-E “skip.” This happens when the E-layer becomes slightly refractive of VHF frequencies, bending them down at an angle of just a few degrees, so that the signals “skip” to distances of 800-1200 miles. This also tended to happen most often in late spring and summer months, usually in the late afternoon and evening. Thanks to sporadic-E, we would watch Channel 3 TV stations from Louisiana, Texas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Cuba and various places in Canada. But, more often, I would also carefully log FM stations I identified in Bruce Elving’s FM Atlas. From 1974 to 1985 (after which I lived in California), I logged more than 800 FM stations, most of which came from more than 800 miles away. Bruce said he’d logged more than 2000 from his home in Duluth, Minnesota. I’m sure that’s a record that will stand for the duration. (Bear in mind that there were only about 10,000 FM signals in the U.S. at the time.)
We’re talking about obsession here.
For Bruce, FM was a cause, forever the underdog, even after it became an overdog with his help. See, up until the early ’60s, FM was the secondary radio band in the U.S. The sound was better, but most cars didn’t have FM bands, and most cheap radios didn’t either. Transistor radios, which were the iPods of the ’50s and ’60s, were mostly AM-only. Bruce championed FM, and his newsletter, FMedia, was a tireless advocate of FM, long after FM pretty much won the fight with AM, and then the Internet had begun to win the fight with both.
I remember telling Bruce that he needed to go digital with PCs, and then take advantage of the Net, and he eventually did, to some degree. But he was still pasting up FM Atlas the old-fashioned way (far as I know) well into the ’90s.
I pretty much quit DXing when I came to Silicon Valley in ’85, though I kept up with Bruce for another decade or so after that. Learning about his passing, I regret that we didn’t stay in closer touch. Though we never met in person, I considered him a good friend, and I enjoyed supporting his work.
With Bruce gone, an era passes. TV DXing was effectively killed when the U.S. digital transition moved nearly every signal off VHF and onto UHF (which skips off the sky too rarely to matter). The FM band is now as crowded as the AM band became, making DXing harder than ever. Programming is also dull and homogenous, compared to the Olde Days. And the Internet obsoletes a key motivation for DXing, which is being able to receive and learn interesting things from distant signals. A core virtue of the Internet is its virtual erasure of distance. Anybody can hear or watch streams from pretty much anywhere, any time, over any connection faster than dial-up. The stream also tends to stay where it is, and sound pretty good.
What remains, at least for me, is an understanding of geography and regional qualities that is deep and abiding. This began when I was a kid, sitting up late at night, listening to far-away stations on the headphones of my Hammarlund HQ-129X (hooked up to a 40-meter ham radio dipole in the back yard), with a map spread out on my desk, and encyclopedia volumes opened to whatever city or state a station happened to come from. It grew when I was a young adult, curious about what was happening in Newfoundland, Bermuda, Texas, Winnepeg, or other sources of FM and TV signals I happened to be getting on my KLH Model 18 tuner or whatever old black-and-white TV set I was using at the time.
When it was over, and other technical matters fascinated me more, I’d gained a great education. And no professor had more influence on that education than Bruce Elving, Ph.D.
Nicholas Carr is ahead of his time again. The Big Switch nailed computing as a utility, long before “the cloud” came to mean pretty much the same thing. His latest book, The Shallows, explored the changes in our lives and minds caused by moving too much of both online — again before others began noticing how much the Net was starting to look like a handbasket.
I have the sensation, as do my friends, that to function as a proficient human, you must both “keep up” with the internet and pursue more serious, analog interests. I blog about real life; I talk about the internet. It’s so exhausting to exist on both registers, especially while holding down a job. It feels like tedious work to be merely conversationally competent. I make myself schedules, breaking down my commute to its most elemental parts and assigning each leg of my journey something different to absorb: podcast, Instapaper article, real novel of real worth, real magazine of dubious worth. I’m pretty tired by the time I get to work at 9 AM.
In-person communication feels binary to me now: subjects are either private, confessional, and soulful or frantically current, determined mostly by critical mass, interesting only in their ephemeral status. Increasingly these modes of talk seem mutually exclusive. You can pull someone aside—away from the party, onto the fire escape—and confess to a foible or you can stay inside with the group and make a joke about something everyone’s read online. “Maybe you keep the wrong company,” my mother suggests. Maybe. But I like my friends! We can sympathize with each other and feel reassured that we’re not alone in our overeager consumption, denigrated self-control, and anxiety masked as ambition.
On the Net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from tap to tap. We transfer only a small jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream.
Psychologists refer to the information flowing into our working memory as our cognitive load. When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to process and store it, we’re unable to retain the information or to draw connections with other memories. We can’t translate the new material into conceptual knowledge. Our ability to learn suffers, and our understanding remains weak. That’s why the extensive brain activity that Small discovered in Web searchers may be more a cause for concern than for celebration. It points to cognitive overload.
The Internet is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it. There’s the problem of hypertext and the many different kinds of media coming at us simultaneously. There’s also the fact that numerous studies—including one that tracked eye movement, one that surveyed people, and even one that examined the habits displayed by users of two academic databases—show that we start to read faster and less thoroughly as soon as we go online. Plus, the Internet has a hundred ways of distracting us from our onscreen reading. Most email applications check automatically for new messages every five or 10 minutes, and people routinely click the Check for New Mail button even more frequently. Office workers often glance at their inbox 30 to 40 times an hour. Since each glance breaks our concentration and burdens our working memory, the cognitive penalty can be severe.
The penalty is amplified by what brain scientists call switching costs. Every time we shift our attention, the brain has to reorient itself, further taxing our mental resources. Many studies have shown that switching between just two tasks can add substantially to our cognitive load, impeding our thinking and increasing the likelihood that we’ll overlook or misinterpret important information. On the Internet, where we generally juggle several tasks, the switching costs pile ever higher.
The Net’s ability to monitor events and send out messages and notifications automatically is, of course, one of its great strengths as a communication technology. We rely on that capability to personalize the workings of the system, to program the vast database to respond to our particular needs, interests, and desires. We want to be interrupted, because each interruption—email, tweet, instant message, RSS headline—brings us a valuable piece of information. To turn off these alerts is to risk feeling out of touch or even socially isolated. The stream of new information also plays to our natural tendency to overemphasize the immediate. We crave the new even when we know it’s trivial.
And so we ask the Internet to keep interrupting us in ever more varied ways. We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the fragmentation of our attention, and the thinning of our thoughts in return for the wealth of compelling, or at least diverting, information we receive. We rarely stop to think that it might actually make more sense just to tune it all out.
Try writing about the Net and tuning it out at the same time. Clearly Nick can do that, because he’s written a bunch of books about the Net (and related matters) while the Net’s been an available distraction. Meanwhile I’ve spent most of the past year writing just one book, fighting and often losing against constant distraction. It’s very hard for me to put the blinders on and just write the thing. In the last few months what I’ve succeed in doing, while wearing the blinders and getting most of my book writing done, is participating far less in many things that I help sustain, or that sustain me, including projects I’m working on, time with my wife, kids and grandkids, and this very blog. (Lotta white spaces on the calendar to the right there.)
On the whole I’ve been dismissive of theories (including Nick’s) about how the Net changes us for the worse, mostly because my own preoccupations, including my distractions, tend to be of the intellectually nutritive sort — or so I like to believe. That is, I’m curious about all kinds of stuff, and like enlarging the sum of what I know, and how well I know it. The Net rocks for that. Still, I see the problem. I can triangulate on that problem just from own struggles plus Alice’s and Nick’s.
Mom used to say, “Great minds discuss ideas, mediocre minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people.” (Attributed, with some dispute, to Eleanor Roosevelt.) The Net feeds all three, but at the risk of dragging one’s mind from the great to the small. “What else are we doing on the internet if not asserting our rank?” Alice writes. (Would we ask the same about what we’re doing in a library?) Later she adds,
Sometimes I can almost visualize parts of myself, the ones I’m most proud of, atrophying. I wish I had an app to monitor it! I notice that my thoughts are homeopathic, that they mirror content I wish I weren’t reading. I catch myself performing hideous, futuristic gestures, like that “hilarious” moment three seconds into an intimate embrace in which I realize I’m literally rubbing my iPhone screen across his spine. Almost every day at 6 PM my Google Alert tells me that an “Alice Gregory” has died. It’s a pretty outdated name, and most of these obituaries, from family newsletters and local papers, are for octogenarians. I know I’m being tidy-minded even to feel a pang from this metaphor, but still . . .
It’s hard not to think “death drive” every time I go on the internet. Opening Safari is an actively destructive decision. I am asking that consciousness be taken away from me. Like the lost time between leaving a party drunk and materializing somehow at your front door, the internet robs you of a day you can visit recursively or even remember. You really want to know what it is about 20-somethings? It’s this: we live longer now. But we also live less. It sounds hyperbolic, it sounds morbid, it sounds dramatic, but in choosing the internet I am choosing not to be a certain sort of alive. Days seem over before they even begin, and I have nothing to show for myself other than the anxious feeling that I now know just enough to engage in conversations I don’t care about.
The internet’s most ruinous effect on literacy may not be the obliteration of long-format journalism or drops in hardcover sales; it may be the destruction of the belief that books can be talked and written about endlessly. There are fewer official reviews of novels lately, but there are infinitely more pithily captioned links on Facebook, reader-response posts on Tumblr, punny jokes on Twitter. How depressing, to have a book you just read and loved feel so suddenly passé, to feel—almost immediately—as though you no longer have any claim to your own ideas about it. I started writing this piece when the book came out at the end of July, and I started unwriting it almost immediately thereafter. Zeno’s Paradox 2.0: delete your sentences as you read their approximations elsewhere. How will future fiction work? Will details coalesce into aphorism? I wonder if instead of scribbling down in my notebook all the familiar aspects of girls I see on the street, as I used to, I’ll continue doing what I do now: snapping a picture and captioning it, in the words of Shteyngart, “so media.”
I’ll grant that we have problems here, but is literacy actually being ruined? Is long-format journalism actually obliterated? The New Yorker is as thick as ever with six to eight thousand word essays. Books still move through stores online and off. Our fourteen year old kid still reads piles of books, even as he spends more time online, watching funny YouTube videos and chatting with a friend three time zones away. Is he worse for that? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Not yet, anyway.
What I am sure about is this: Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr are temporary constructions on the Web, like Worlds Fairs used to be, when we still had them. The Internet is a world where all four seasons happen at once. New sites and services are like plants that germinate, grow, bud, bloom and die, over and over. Even the big trees don’t grow to the sky. We need their fruit, their shade, their wood and the humus to which they return. Do we need the other crap that comes along with it those stages? Maybe not, but we go for it anyway.
In the mid-2000s, journalists and businesspeople heralded “Web 2.0” technologies such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook as signs of a new participatory era that would democratize journalism, entertainment, and politics. By the decade’s end, this idealism had been replaced by a gold-rush mentality focusing on status and promotion. While the rhetoric of Web 2.0 as democratic and revolutionary persists, I will contend that a primary use of social media is to boost user status and popularity, maintaining hierarchy rather than diminishing it. This talk focuses on three status-seeking techniques that emerged with social media: micro-celebrity, self-branding, and life-streaming. I examine interactions between social media and social life in the San Francisco “tech scene” to show that Web 2.0 has become a key aspect of social hierarchy in technologically mediated communities.
I’ve been in and out of that scene since 1985, and I know personally a large percentage of Alice’s sources. One of them, Tara Hunt, provided Alice with some terrific insights about how the status system works. Tara also punched out of that system not long ago, moving to Montreal and starting a company. She has also been very active in the VRM development community, for which I am very grateful. She’s on a helluva ride.
Listening to the two Alices, Emily Dickenson comes to mind:
A Route of Evanescence,
With a revolving Wheel –
A Resonance of Emerald
A Rush of Cochineal –
And every Blossom on the Bush
Adjusts it’s tumbled Head –
The Mail from Tunis – probably,
An easy Morning’s Ride –
Speaking of which, here’s Bill Hicks on life’s ride:
The World is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real, because that’s how powerful our minds are. And the ride goes up and down and round and round, and it has thrills and chills and is very brightly colored, and it’s very loud. And it’s fun, for a while.
Some people have been on the ride for a long time, and they’ve begun to question, ‘Is this real, or is this just a ride?’, and other people have remembered, and they’ve come back to us and they say ‘Hey, don’t worry. Don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.’ and we KILL THOSE PEOPLE.
“Shut him up! We have alot invested in this ride! SHUT HIM UP! Look at my furrows of worry. Look at my big bank account, and my family. This has to be real.”
It’s just a ride.
But we always kill those good guys who try and tell us that. You ever noticed that? And let the demons run amok. But it doesn’t matter, because … It’s just a ride.
And we can change it anytime we want. It’s only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings of money. A choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear wants you to put bigger locks on your door, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love, instead see all of us as one.
(Watch the video. It’s better.)
Social media, social networking — all of it — is just practice. It’s just scaffolding for the roller coaster we keep re-building, riding on, falling off, and re-building. That’s what we’ve been making and re-making of civilization, especially since Industry won the Industrial revolution. (That’s why we needed world’s fairs, to show off how Industry was doing.)
You go back before that and, on the whole, life didn’t change much, anywhere. Most of our ancestors, for most of the Holocene, lived short, miserable lives that were little different than those of generations prior or hence.
Back in the ’70s I lived in a little community called Oxbow, north of Chapel Hill. My house was one off whats now called Wild Primrose Lane, in this map here. In those days the bare area in the center of that map was a farm that was plowed fresh every spring. One day while we were walking there, I picked up a six-inch spear point that looked like this one from the Alamance Museum (one county over):
(Hmm… I’ve been wondering what happened to the one I found. Could this be it? The more I look at it, the more I think so.) Anyway, I brought it to friends in the anthropology department at UNC — associates of the great Joffre Coe — who told me it was a Guilford point, from the Middle Archaic period, which ran from 6000 to 3000 B.C. (The original color was gray, as you can see from the chipped parts. The surface color comes from what’s called patination.)
What fascinates me about this date range, which is similar to the range for other kinds of points everywhere in the world, is how little technology changed over such a long period of time. Generation after generation made the same kinds of stone tools, the same way, for thousands of years. Today we change everything we make, pretty much constantly. There was no Moore’s Law operating among the Guilford people, or anywhere, in 5000 B.C. Today Moore sometimes seems slow.
I don’t have a conclusion here, other than to say that maybe Nick and both Alices are right, and the Net is not so ideal as some of us (me especially) tend to think it is. But I also think the Net is something we make, and not just something that makes us.
Clearly, we could do a better job. We have the tools, and we can make many more.
I happen to love the sensual experience of walking into a bookstore and examining the wares, picking up books, smelling them, admiring the covers, reading the first page or two. In 15 minutes, I can always find at least five books that really deeply interest me. I can’t do that online. It just doesn’t excite my viscera the way physical books do. This is a learned pleasure going back to when I was 10 and rode my bike downtown and walked into the reading rooms of the Minneapolis Public Library. It’s not a pleasure I can transfer to a digital image on a screen, just as I can’t get as excited about a picture of a naked woman as I do about one who is walking across the floor toward me.
I looked at a truckload of poems to find the few thousand I’ve read on the radio, and it’s an education. First of all, most poems aren’t memorable, in fact, they make no impression at all. Sorry, but it’s true. There are brave blurbs on the back cover (“writes with a lyrical luminosity that reconceptualizes experience with cognitive beauty”) but you open up the goods and they’re like condoms on the beach, evidence that somebody was here once and had an experience but not of great interest to the passerby.
Speaking of memorable, a lookup on Google of Keillor and “condoms on the beach” brings up 70 results, including this one, which spared me the need to transcribe the above from the book. The Web is a handy thing. And so is Good Poems.
When I was walking to school in the second grade, I found myself behind a group of older kids, arguing about what subjects they hated most. The consensus was geography. At the time I didn’t know what geography was, but I became determined to find out. When I did, two things happened. First, I realized that I loved geography (and along with it, geology). Second, I learned that popularity of anything often meant nothing. And I’ve been passionate about geography ever since.
But not just for myself. Instead I’m interested in feeding scholarship wihin subjects that interest me. For both geography and geology I do that mostly through photography. Toward that end, here are a few recent sets I’ve posted, or updated:
Meanwhile, close to 200 of my shots are now in Wikimedia Commons. Big thanks to the Wikipedians who have put them there. I can’t begin to count how many Wikipedia articles many of these illustrate. This one of Denver International Airport’s distinctive roofline currently accompanies eighteen different articles in fourteen different languages.
You may notice that most of my links to subjects, both in my online writings and in my photo captions, go to Wikipedia entries. Sometimes people ask me why. One reason is that Wikipedia is the closest we have come, so far, to a source that is both canonical and durable, even if each entry changes constantly, and some are subject to extreme disagreement. Wikipedia is, like the protocols of the Net, a set of agreements. Another reason is that Wikipedia is guided by the ideal of a neutral point of view (NPOV). This, Joseph says, “ensures that we can join the scattered pieces of what we think we know and good faith facilitates the actual practice of fitting them together.”
The nature of the Net is to encourage scatterings such as mine, as well as good faith about what might be done with them.
I’m looking for two things here.
First is the percentage of advertising devoted to “branding.” I’ve read 90% somewhere, but I need more than hearsay or partial recall. In fact, I’m in the market for any hard numbers on the subject of advertising. This is for a book I’m writing, and my sources need to be worthy of bibliographic citation.
Second is the truth behind a story I have heard more than once regarding James Buchanan Duke, a baron of the tobacco industry. According to the story, Duke was asked at a board meeting why he advertised his cigarette brands so annoyingly. In reply, Duke spit on the table and said, “You may not like that, but you’ll never forget it.” I suspect this is apocryphal, but I don’t know. So I’m hoping one of you can point me to an authoritative source on the matter.
My great uncle Jack Dwyer worked in the shipping and steamship business through the first half of the last century. He also took a lot of pictures, including my favorite family photo of all time. (I’m the kid with the beer.) I was going through a bunch of these on Flickr yesterday, when I noticed the name of a ship launched in Biloxi, in 1919. It was the Elizabeth Ruth. Look closely and you can see the ship is wooden. In fact it was one of the last of the masted schooners on which Biloxi specialized.
Thanks to Google Books and the Library of the University of Michigan, we have an account of the Elizabeth Ruth’s launch, in March 1917, in Volume 35 of The Rudder, edited by Thomas Fleming Day (in a day when using full names was still as current as sails on ships). Writes Day, “The Mississippi Shipping Corporation, at Biloxi, put out Elizabeth Ruth, of the Schooner type, one of the prettiest little vessels ever built in the United States, of 1400 tons cargo capacity.”
Sez the About page:
Papers Past contains more than one million pages of digitised New Zealand newspapers and periodicals. The collection covers the years 1839 to 1945 and includes 61 publications from all regions of New Zealand.
New Zealand. I just love that. Here I am, wanting to know what may have happened to a minor ship, built and launched from a minor port on one continent ninety-two years ago — that I have just learned about from a book scanned in Michigan and probably not cracked open in the library stacks there except to get scanned — and I get the answer from a scanned strip of equally old print, kindly curated by archivists half a world away.
That just rocks. Hats off to librarians, archivists and their technical facilitators everywhere, doing the good work of opening up history and letting the world have at it.
Sitting in the Harvard Law Library, where John Palfrey is about to give what I sense will be a landmark lecture, on the occasion of his chair appointment as Henry N. Ess III Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. So I’m taking notes here. [Later... John's own notes — the abstract for his talk — are here. Also here. I also shot pictures, which are here. One of those follows.]
John is arguing for a new clearly connected system for sharing legal information. Presenting data in open, distributable and interoperable way.
One reason for doing this is cost. HLS spends $4 million on legal materials. HLS stives to have the world’s greatest collection of these at any given time. In theory at least, HLS bought everything in the law. There was no policy other than to buy it all. For a long time. Oliver Wendell Holmes surrounded himself in this. (His round desk is in the back of the room, and from it drinks will be served later.) Thomson Eest, Reed Elsevier (Lexis-Nexis), Wolters Kluwer, et.al. are the big sources.
Props to Henry N. Ess III, namesake of John’s new chair, and collector of many books that surround us now.
John reviews nine hundred years of history, from roots in manuscripts behind English common law, works by Littleton and Coke in the mid-teen centuries, then Blackstone in the eighteenth century, then Langdell and West in the nineteenth.
Now we are in the 21st century, and it’s digital. This is our new era, and we are just getting started.
Thanks to Google Books, more is available in digital form, but there are “scary bits” in it. Having this amazing digial library of Alexandria managed by a private entity without public interest at its core is troubling.
An intent: When we have committed for a journal article, we will have it in the public domain. This is a way of systematizing the ideal here.
The notion of putting all the legal information in the world in cyberspace is wacky yet not enough. We need to design it and do it deliberately in a way that is useful and makes sense.
Our students now are born digital. Teachers need to recognize this change.
We now presume that media will be in a digital format. iTunes is the top seller of music. YouTube is the top source of video.
But there is one anomaly in this story. Notice that students in the library outside this room use both laptops and paper casebooks — because the latter work with the three Bs: bed, bath and beach. So paper is still with us. But the presumption remains digital.
Changes in the computing system. One is cloud computing. Computing power and storage has moved to a large degree to places other than our own devices.
There are also changes in publishing. Books may will go toward digital. Sales of Kindle books at Amazon now exceed sales of print books.
We can now print books when we want them. We can now write, publish in print and online in close to real time.
The Digital Lab Team (featured at the Berkman Lunch today) is on screen now. And now we see many resources that are available through Google’s scholar portal. But one bad story that might happen here is that libraries turn into warehouses for print books. Students here today start with Google Scholar, then go to HOLLIS (the Harvard online library resource), and then to the physical library itself — or elsewhere.
So the effort perhaps should go not to completing collections, but to the interface to scholarship in general.
The current slide is a Stack View of books. “We can’t re-create the must” (in stacks). (I love the smell of library stacks. One of my favorite smells in the world.)
The problem is, there isn’t a stack. Most books go to the depository. But we can create a digital stack. And we can create a new way of looking for books and other sources that uses our familiar interface (the stack shelf), and also the serendipitous other advantages of digital connections and presentations.
Next slide, CALI.org and eLangdell.
There are tradtions other than our Anglo-American own. (A Chinese liberary slide is up now.)
Demerit of the system proposed: money. The courts don’t like these ideas. We don’t give enough money to our courts, and thus it is hard to make this possible. But if we gave a bit more, we would be able to overcome the klugey process we have today. We can drive costs out of the system.
Another: privacy. The redaction problem. By putting info in a single system, we might create combinations that are unhappy. Divorces and children combined with criminal law. Depositions and so on. So we need to be careful what we expose and what we don’t. Maybe depositions don’t go there. This is a possible enduring cost.
Another: authentication. Some librarians don’t like these ideas because printed-out stuff seems more reliable. We can do a better job digitally, but this will have a cost — a near-term one.
It is entirely possible that one might get information without context. There will be challenges to teaching in this way. But teachers are seeing this right now already.
Now for the merits.
First, putting things in XML format and making them downloadable (already started) can be enormously powerful
Next, scale. Much more is now being published. It takes less time to produce more, and we need to produce more, faster.
Next, we can create new code. think of the great search engines, and familiar leading code projects (yahoo, google, facebook, et. al.)… Many of these were created by students. Think about how tech can make hard-to-read stuff accessible.
Next, new connections. Visualizaitons, for example. (Points to Jeffrey Schnapp, with Visualization of Republic of Letters on the screen.) This kind of visualization will create needed curricular reforms.
Implictions: perception, practice, scholarship…
Perception: This might undercut what we see as the magesty of the law.
Practice: For judges, this could make them uneasy. Much as Charlie Nesson’s efforts to webcast court proceedings made them unconfortable. There might be a chilling in the way we practice the law. A possible side-effect might be a little of the medicine that judges’ kids are getting now around privacy. There is an extent to which it is possible that people who have lived in a protected environment might not see how digital natives live in an exposed environment. To see the world in a different way than their kids may have a distoring aeffect.
Scholarship. The slide: “For the rational study of law the black-letter man may be the man of the present, but thee man of the future is the man of statistics and the master of economics.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
We may see the rise and fall of the tradition and writing of treatises. Having individuals, without teachers in some cases, DIY-ing it…
Is this the end of law libraries?, the slide asks.
On the way in we passed the stature of Joseph Story, who saved HLS, which was down to one student when he did. Here on the top floor you pass lots of students, more than ever before, studying in this space, where contemplation is possible. There is something about the physical space. (Thanks the dean for not taking away space.) Next, the portrait of Justice Taney, who wrote the Dred Scott decision. You can see the unhappiness on his face. Isaac Royall is on the wall here. Made money in the slave trade in Antiqua. Libraries help us learn from these people, these decisions, this history.
In the future no law library will do it all. We have a lot of law schools around here.
Not every regime in the world is stable. Here, more than most. For example, the pre-Soviet materials here make available what isn’t easy to find in Russia. People come here for materials not available in Turkey. We have legal information from around the world, saved for the ages.
The community of people here who provide access to knowledge is extraordinary. We have this notion that you can make a call and get what you want. The HLS team, on whom the many assets and benefits of this place rests, make it alive and accessible at key moments.
The game plan. The designers of this place — Langdell Hall — good as it is, needs to grow digitally. We have not put together information architects as good as the ones who designed the physical space. We need a design charette to make this right. We need to do right by the jailhouse lawyer, the prosaic litigant… It will be better though uncomfortable at first for the teachers and learners that we make these changes, providing access to justice through information.
Qustion from Jonathan Zittrain… We have SSRN having to implement anti gaming measures… Choice of what to think about, and what modality to think about… Is this an article, a blog?… What are your instincts about the future of legal scholarship? What are the right mix of advances that will excite the rest of the world?
JP: I want to defend the long-form argument, but first an aside: The greatest friend of this library is Charlie Donohue… What this will do is create pressure and opportunity for what will count as legal scholarship. We are looking at extension of text analysis, of (missed it)… We need these new modalities. We will see the gradual (shrinking of black letter law as a percentage of the whole).
Q: What are the implications for The Law? Is this the end of The Law? How much depends on what Holmes and others saw as a closed system, with a set of materials that constituted what The Law was and meant? In this new environment do we still have that? As more information becomes accessible for people to make arguments from, does this set new boundaries for what The Law is? What should now be in a law library rather than in a cloud? (Each question so far is a series of questions.)
JP: A great question, and not a new one. Back when printing was new, one of the debates was about this same thing. Is scholarly work in fact the law? So we already have this weird conflation. What we have now is the same problem. What is interdisciplinary work? A thoroughly connected system allows many answers to come. But we still have this problem that law itself is unfinished. If law itself is information, then what is information about the law? That’s where we get hung up. (Hope I got that right.)
Q: Access, and how is it paid for. Who controls what is available? How is it kept reliable? What is the future of what closed systems did so well?
JP: Students want more floors open more hours. In a serious way, what should be open is the platform that involves the primary and secondary law in a virtual sense. That’s the bedrock. There will be a much greater diversity than what we now get with Westlaw. Many more people looking at the same core of information through different lenses. We will still have open and closed spaces, but the former will be the larger context.
[Later...] John speaks slowly and carefully enough to follow with an outliner, which is what I did here. Go here for his original abstract (which is comprehensive). And watch MediaBerkman for the audio and video.
The meaning of the term “Chinese wall” is clear. It’s a virtual partition meant to keep potentially conflicted interests apart. What’s not clear, at least to me, is where the term came from. This post at WhatIs.com quotes Wikipedia, this way:
Chinese wall is usually said to be a reference to the Great Wall of China, erected over 2000 years ago to protect inhabitants from invaders. However, other theories exist. In a Wikipedia entry, for example, the author argues that the term probably derives from a diplomatic contrivance of the Late Imperial period in China: “…if a junior mandarin saw a senior mandarin on the road he was expected to bow and present his compliments. In Beijing this tended to happen quite a lot and so traffic was frequently blocked. Instead mandarins came up with a method of pretending they did not see each other on the road by the clever placing of a retainer with an umbrella. Because they did not “see” each other, they were not obliged to stop.”
Meanwhile Wikipedia’s Chinese wall article now lacks that passage, so that’s a dead end. I recall “Chinese wall” meaning a thin one: You can hear what’s happening on the other side, but can pretend not to notice. Still, not good enough. So I’m hoping one of you can point me to a source I can cite in the book I’m writing.
And if you’re wondering why I’m posting less these days, it’s because my nose is on the book’s grindstone.
First, three posts by JP Rangaswami:
His bottom line in the last of those: “… people are saying the web dumbs us down. This is wrong. The web can dumb us down, but only if we choose to let it.” Much substance leads up to that, including many comments to the first two posts.
In the first post, JP says, “For information to have power, it needs to be held asymmetrically. Preferably very very asymmetrically. Someone who knows something that others do not know can do something potentially useful and profitable with that information.” He adds,
So when people create walled-garden paid apps, others will create unpaid apps that get to the same material. It’s only a matter of time. Because every attempt at building dams and filters on the internet is seen as pollution by the volunteers. It’s not about the money, it’s about the principle. No pollutants.
Which brings me to the reason for this post. There’s been a lot of talk about the web and the internet making us dumber.
I think it’s more serious than that. What the web does is reduce the capacity for asymmetry in education. Which in turn undermines the exalted status of the expert.
The web makes experts “dumb”. By reducing the privileged nature of their expertise.
Every artificial scarcity will be met by an equal and opposite artificial abundance. And, over time, the abundance will win. There will always be more people choosing to find ways to undo DRM than people employed in the DRM-implementing sector. Always.
These types of voluntary acceptance of asymmetry in information are the fabric of relationships. We trust people with sensitive information when we believe they will respect our privacy.
I don’t see abundance undoing that. Either the untrustworthy recipient develops a reputation for indescretion and is cut off, or the entire system would have to preclude any privacy at all. In that latter scenario, it would became impossible to share our thoughts and ideas, our dreams and passions, without divulging it to the world. We would stop sharing and shut down those thoughts altogether rather than allow ourselves to become vulnerable to passing strangers and the powers that be. Such a world would of totalitarian omniscience would be unbearable and unsustainable. Human beings need to be able to trust one another. Friends need to be able to talk to friends without broadcasting to the world. Otherwise, we are just cogs in a vast social order over which we have almost no control.
Asymmetry-by-choice, whether formalized in an NDA, regulated by law, or just understood between close friends, is part of the weft and weave of modern society.
The power of asymmetry-by-choice is the power of relationships. When we can trust someone else with our secrets, we gain. When we can’t, we are limited to just whatever we can do with that information in isolation.
This is a core part of what we are doing with VRM and the ISWG. Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) is about helping users get the most out of their relationships with vendors. And those relationships depend on Vendors respecting the directives of their customers, especially around asymmetric information. The Information Sharing Work Group (ISWG) is developing scenarios and legal agreements that enable individuals to share information with service providers on their own terms. The notion of a personal data store is predicated on providing privileged information to service providers, dynamically, with full assurance and the backing of the law. The receiving service providers can then provide enhanced, customized services based on the content of that data store… and individuals can rest assured that law abiding service providers will respect the terms they’ve requested.
I think the value of this asymmetry-by-choice is about artificial scarcity, in that it is constructed through voluntary agreement rather than the mechanics/electronics of the situation, but it is also about voluntary relationships, and that is why it is so powerful and essential.
I’ll let both arguments stand for now (and I think if the two of them were talking here right now they’d come to some kind of agreement… maybe they will in comments here or on their own blogs), while I lever both their points toward the issue of privacy, which will continue to heat up as more people become aware of liberties taken with personal information by Web companies, especially those in the advertising business. I hadn’t thought about this in terms of asymmetry before, but maybe it helps.
The Web has always embodied the design asymmetry of server and client. Sites have servers. Visitors have clients (your computing device and its browser). To help keep track of visitors’ relationships, the server gives them HTTP cookies. These are small text files that help the server recall logins, passwords, contact history and other helpful information. Cookies have been normative in the extreme since they were first used in the mid-nineties.
Today advertising on the Web is also normative to an extreme that is beginning to feel metastatic. In efforts to improve advertising, “beacons” and flash cookies have been added to the HTTP variety, and all are now also used to track users on the Web. The Wall Street Journal has been following this in its What They Know series, and you can find out more there. Improvement, in the new advertising business, is now about personalization. “It is a sea change in the way the industry works,” Omar Tawakol, CEO of BlueKai, told the Wall Street Journal. “Advertisers want to buy access to people, not Web pages.”
Talk about asymmetry. You are no longer just a client to a server. You are a target with crosshairs on your wallet.
Trying to make advertising more helpful is a good thing. Within a trusted relationship, it can be a better thing. The problem with all this tracking is that it does not involve trusted relationships. Advertisers and site owners may assume or infer some degree of conscious assent by users. But, as the Journal series makes clear, most of us have no idea how much unwelcome tracking is really going on. (Hell, they didn’t know until they started digging.)
So let’s say we can construct trusted relationships with sellers. By we I mean you and me, as individuals. How about if we have our own terms of engagement with sellers—ones that express our intentions, and not just theirs? What might we say? How about,
I’m not a lawyer, and I’m not saying any of the points above are either legal or in legal language. But they are the kinds of things we might like to say within a relationship that is symmetrical in nature yet includes the kind of asymmetry-by-choice that Joe talks about: the kind based on real trust and real agreement and not just passive assent.
The idea here isn’t to make buyers more powerful than sellers. It’s to frame up standard mechanisms by which understandings can be established by both parties. Joe mentioned some of the work going on there. I also mention some in Cooperation vs. Coercion, on the ProjectVRM blog. Here’s a long excerpt:
What we need now is for vendors to discover that free customers are more valuable than captive ones. For that we need to equip customers with better ways to enjoy and express their freedom, including ways of engaging that work consistently for many vendors, rather than in as many different ways ways as there are vendors — which is the “system” (that isn’t) we have now.
There are lots of VRM development efforts working on both the customer and vendor sides of this challenge. In this post I want to draw attention to the symbols that represent those two sides, which we call r-buttons, two of which appear above. Yours is the left one. The vendor’s is the right one. They face each other like magnets, and are open on the facing ends.
These are designed to support what Steve Gillmor calls gestures, which he started talking about back in 2005 or so. I paid some respect to gestures (though I didn’t yet understand what he meant) in The Intention Economy, a piece I wrote for Linux Journal in 2006. (That same title is also the one for book I’m writing for Harvard Business Press. The subtitle is What happens when customers get real power.) On the sell side, in a browser environment, the vendor puts some RDFa in its HTML that says “We welcome free customers.” That can mean many things, but the most important is this: Free customers bring their own means of engagement. It also means they bring their own terms of engagement.
Being open to free customers doesn’t mean that a vendor has to accept the customer’s terms. It does mean that the vendor doesn’t believe it has to provide all those terms itself, through the currently defaulted contracts of adhesion that most of us click “accept” for, almost daily. We have those because from the dawn of e-commerce sellers have assumed that they alone have full responsibility for relationships with customers. Maybe now that dawn has passed, we can get some daylight on other ways of getting along in a free and open marketplace.
The gesture shown here —
— is the vendor (in this case the public radio station KQED, which I’m just using as an example here) expressing openness to the user, through that RDFa code in its HTML. Without that code, the right-side r-button would be gray. The red color on the left side shows that the user has his or her own code for engagement, ready to go. (I unpack some of this stuff here.)
Putting in that RDFa would be trivial for a CRM system. Or even for a CMS (content management system). Next step: (I have Craig Burton leading me on this… he’s on the phone with me right now…) RESTful APIs for customer data. Check slide 69 here. Also slides 98 and 99. And 122, 124, 133 and 153.
If I’m not mistaken, a little bit of RDFa can populate a pop-down menu on the site’s side that might look like this:
All the lower stuff is typical “here are our social links” jive. The important new one is that item at the top. It’s the new place for “legal” (the symbol is one side of a “scale of justice”) but it doesn’t say “these are our non-negotiable terms of service (or privacy policies, or other contracts of adhesion). Just by appearing there it says “We’re open to what you bring to the table. Click here to see how.” This in turn opens the door to a whole new way for buyers and sellers to relate: one that doesn’t need to start with the buyer (or the user) just “accepting” terms he or she doesn’t bother to read because they give all advantages to the seller and are not negotiable. Instead it is an open door like one in a store. Much can be implicit, casual and free of obligation. No new law is required here. Just new practice. This worked for Creative Commons (which neither offered nor required new copyright law), and it can work for r-commerce (a term I just made up). As with Creative Commons, what happens behind that symbol can be machine, lawyer or human-readable. You don’t have to click on it. If your policy as a buyer is that you don’t want to to be tracked by advertisers, you can specify that, and the site can hear and respond to it. The system is, as Renee Lloyd puts it, the difference between a handcuff and a handshake.
Renee is a lawyer and self-described “shark trainer” who has done much in the VRM community to help us think about agreements in ways that are legal without being complicated. For example, when you walk into a store, you are surrounded by laws of many kinds, yet you have an understanding with that store that you will behave as a proper guest. (And many stores, such as Target, refer by policy to their customers as “guests.”) You don’t have accept “terms of service” that look like this:
You agree we are not liable for annoying interruptions caused by you; or a third party, buildings, hills, network congestion, rye whiskey falling sickness or unexpected acts of God or man, and will save harmless rotary lyrfmstrdl detections of bargas overload prevention, or if Elvis leaves the building, living or dead. Unattended overseas submissions in saved mail hazard functions will be subject to bad weather or sneeze funneling through contractor felch reform blister pack truncation, or for the duration of the remaining unintended contractual subsequent lost or expired obligations, except in the state of Arizona at night. We also save ourselves and close relatives harmless from anything we don’t control; including clear weather and oddball acts of random gods. You also agree we are not liable for missed garments, body parts, electronic communications or musical instruments, even if you have saved them. Nothing we say or mumble here is trustworthy or true, or meant for any purpose other than to sphincter the fears of our legal department, which has no other reason to live. Everything here does not hold if we become lost, damaged or sold to some other company. Whether for reasons of drugs, hormones, gas or mood, we may also terminate or change this agreement with cheerful impunity.
[ ] Accept.
And for that you get a cookie. Yum.
Phil Windley gives a great talk in which he reduces History of E-Commerce to one slide. It looks like this:
1995: Invention of the Cookie.
Not content with that, Phil has moved history forward a step by writing KRL, the Kynetx Rule Language, which he describes in this post here. The bottom line for our purpose in this post is that you can write your own rules. Terms of engagement are not among them yet, but why not? It’s early. At VRM+CRM 2010 last Friday, Craig Burton showed how easy it is to program a relationship—or just your side of one—with KRL. What blew my mind was that the show was over and it was past time to leave, on a Friday, and people hung out to see how this was done. (Here’s a gallery of photos from the workshop.)
And those are just some of the efforts going on in the VRM (and soon, we trust, the CRM) community. What we’re trusting (we’re beyond just hoping at this point) is that tools for users wishing to manage relationships with organizations of all kinds (and not just vendors) will continue to find their way into the marketplace. And the result will be voluntary relationships that employ asymmetry by choice—in which the choice is made freely by all the parties involved.
I’ve been so heads-down working on a book, and prepping for this this week’s workshop, that I haven’t blogged anything in a while. Normally blogging is a steam valve for my work, but tweeting does more of that now. (Which is too bad, because tweets are snow on the water. Or at least it seems that way when I go back looking for what somebody said.) So the blog(s) get neglected.
Anyway, I want to share my affection for two new books that blowing my mind, page after page. One is Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants. The other is Lewis Hyde’s Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership. Both authors worked for years on these books, and it shows in the depth of their scholarship and the polish of their prose.
Both are not merely important, but essential. Kevin’s breaks new ground in all directions one must travel to understand what technology is, and its relationship with human nature and work. Lewis does a complete re-think of “intellectual property,” and in the process re-grounds our understanding in an abundance of history — too much of which has been long (and selectively) forgotten. I can’t find a review of What Technology Wants yet, so I’ll link to what Craig Burton said here a while ago. Common as Air got a huge thumbs-up from Robert Darnton this past Sunday in The New York Times’ Sunday Book Review. Go read it. I’m getting back to work.