David Weinberger: Thank you very much for com­ing. My name is David Weinberger. We usu­al­ly at these ses­sions go around and have every­body say a word about who they are, but we’re not going to do that today because there are too many of you because Anil Dash is way, way too pop­u­lar. Completely deserved­ly so, by the way. But I rec­og­nize many face here and I can assure you this is a real­ly smart, inter­est­ing crowd.

I’m so so hap­py to be able to intro­duce Anil, who I’ve fol­lowed for many many years and who I admire vast­ly. He’s a tech­nol­o­gist, he’s a writer, he’s an entre­pre­neur, and in many ways from at at least my point of view, he embod­ies some of the very best val­ues of the Internet cul­ture.

He’s been blog­ging since 1999, which I think makes you offi­cial­ly an ear­ly blog­ger, a blog­ging pio­neer. He’s one of the founders or orig­i­nal employ­ees? at Six Apart

Anil Dash: Early employ­ee.

David: Early and very influ­en­tial employ­ee at Six Apart, which brought us Movable Type, which was a real­ly impor­tant (and still is) blog­ging plat­form. He has gone on to many oth­er deep and inter­est­ing things, includ­ing found­ing Expert Labs more or less at the prompt­ing of the Obama White House, and is cur­rent­ly co-founder of ThinkUp.

I want to just read one sen­tence from his home page, Dashes, where he blogs, but first I want to remind you of the rules here, which are few. The only thing you need to know is that this is being web­cast. It will be post­ed so feel free to say what­ev­er you want, just under­stand that this is ful­ly, ful­ly pub­lic.

There is a hash­tag, the name of which I don’t remem­ber. What’s the hash­tag for this? The nor­mal Berkman hash­tag. #berk­man, there we go. So that’s the one thing that you should know.

On Anil’s page, he says by way of intro­duc­ing him­self The high­est use of new tech­nolo­gies is to empow­er peo­ple who are not born with the priv­i­lege of access to the insti­tu­tions that define our cul­ture.” Not the nor­mal sort of state­ment you find on an entrepreneur’s site, but I think indica­tive of where Anil’s heart is. So, Anil.

Anil: Thank you very much. Very kind intro­duc­tion. It’s excit­ing to be here, this is not some­thing I ever imag­ined get­ting a chance to do. So first of all thank you all for your time and atten­tion and the intro­duc­tion.

It’s great to get a room full of peo­ple that will arrive at a con­ver­sa­tion that’s called The Web We Lost.” There’s a lot of assump­tions just in the name about us shar­ing a com­mon con­text and a per­spec­tive on the Web, or at least being will­ing to enter­tain that per­spec­tive on the Web. So I think there’s a real­ly excit­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty to have a great con­ver­sa­tion about this. Thank you for your time.

Illustration of a tree, overlaid on a grid pattern

I want­ed to start first, I came up last night from New York City, with a sym­bol that we see in New York City. Have any of you ever seen this sym­bol? How many of you know what it is? Anybody?
One hand.

Audience: Isn’t that the one for New York parks?

Anil: You know, I thought it was, too. And it’s not. Ths is the sym­bol for a privately-owned pub­lic space in New York City. So if you go nyc​.gov/​p​ops, this is where this logo lives. I had seen this every­where around New York City, think­ing oh that means there’s a park here” or I’m going to take my son there” and it actu­al­ly means noth­ing of the sort.

Privately-owned pub­lic spaces are exact­ly what they sound like. They exist because com­pa­nies want to build build­ings that are taller than the zon­ing reg­u­la­tions allow, and so they say we’ll give you an ease­ment on that reg­u­la­tion as long as you’re will­ing to build a pub­lic space that peo­ple can use. So you end up with these aber­ra­tions like the Sony build­ing being 60, 80 sto­ries tall, and a nom­i­nal park which actu­al­ly takes the form of their atri­um. I call these things cap­tive atria,” where you can go and do things that are nom­i­nal­ly pub­lic like drink a cof­fee, but not any of the things we’d asso­ciate with a true park. This all becomes impor­tant in this whole con­ver­sa­tion, but not least because one of the places that has this logo in front of it is Zucotti Park. (“Park.”)

A "publicly-owned public space" sign, next to another with text reading "Zuccotti Park; No skateboarding, rollerblading, or bicycling allowed in the park"

So, cer­tain­ly a lot of you are famil­iar with the name Zuccotti Park from the Occupy move­ment which had its flag­ship encamp­ment at Zuccotti Park, and the rea­son that flag­ship encamp­ment is no longer at Zuccotti Park is because that symbol’s on it; it’s a privately-owned space. It does not exist as a pub­lic space as we know them.

So this idea, the rede­f­i­n­i­tion of a pub­lic space in order to meet the pref­er­ences or goals of a pri­vate cor­po­ra­tion is a refrain that comes through the entire con­ver­sa­tion we’re going to have today, and has been a recur­ring motif in this lens of look­ing at it through how we look at our phys­i­cal civic insti­tu­tions has been very very help­ful and instruc­tive to me in recon­sid­er­ing the ways I think about the web that we live and work and play on today. Especially because all of us can con­flate the sym­bol for a privately-owned space with the sym­bol for a pub­lic park. I think we do that a lot, and we need to under­stand what the dis­tinc­tions are.

Denying Your Right to Transgress

The most impor­tant dis­tinc­tion between these spaces that we think are pub­lic and the ones that are privately-owned is the con­straint that the privately-owned spaces intro­duce to us. They deny us the right to trans­gress. This can hap­pen in many dif­fer­ent ways. Typically peo­ple want to talk here about pub­lic assem­bly, about demon­stra­tions, about march­es, about Occupy. I think those are all real­ly impor­tant things. I think about folks like Improv Everywhere. They’re doing art in pub­lic spaces, some­times com­e­dy in pub­lic spaces, and in order to assert what they do, that it is cul­tur­al­ly valu­able to per­form their art, they have to fre­quent­ly mis­lead peo­ple about their iden­ti­ty, mis­rep­re­sent their iden­ti­ty, they need to mas­quer­ade as some­one else, they need to be able to oper­ate anony­mous­ly, or dur­ing times and places when peo­ple aren’t sup­posed to have access. That’s in order to per­form things that are enter­tain­ing and amus­ing, kid safe.

So this is a real­ly key under­pin­ning of what we expect a pub­lic space to be able to let us do, is trans­gress. And trans­gres­sion isn’t always just the moments where you’re hav­ing a march. It is these every­day things that are fun and enter­tain­ing and make life a lit­tle more liv­able. It’s impor­tant to me to under­stand how we trans­form spaces from what looks like parks or pub­lic space into pri­vate spaces. The lens again for this that was most instruc­tive see­ing how the trans­for­ma­tion hap­pened was to imag­ine a secre­tive, pri­vate, Ivy League club.

A Secretive, Private, Ivy League Club

I am very flat­tered and excit­ed to be here, but as I was speak­ing to folks ear­li­er today, one of the things that is prob­a­bly not famil­iar to all of you that get to sit in this room on a reg­u­lar basis or in the build­ings around here is this is an intim­i­dat­ing place to be. I didn’t grad­u­ate from col­lege. I’m the son of immi­grants. This is not the place that I am sup­posed to be speak­ing, cer­tain­ly not on this side of the room.

So it’s very easy to for­get how even a space as wel­com­ing as this one can seem intim­i­dat­ing and closed off to the vast major­i­ty of peo­ple in soci­ety. And this is par­tic­u­lar­ly true when I look at where I spend my time online. Facebook was con­struct­ed explic­it­ly as a secre­tive, pri­vate, Ivy League club, and I’m sup­posed to feel flat­tered and reward­ed that it now allows me to come in. But I don’t always feel that way. Sometimes I feel like it’s still yours. I’m glad to be allowed to par­tic­i­pate in it, but it’s nev­er going to be mine, and it’s nev­er going to be a place of me. And almost all of the tools that we use in the tech­nol­o­gy world and the social net­work­ing world have a very hard time tran­scend­ing what they were orig­i­nal­ly cre­at­ed to sup­port.

If this is what you’re orig­i­nal­ly cre­at­ed to sup­port, how far can you get from the ori­gins of what you were born to be? It’s espe­cial­ly impor­tant because of what peo­ple do inside the secre­tive club, and the way that most of our social net­works work, I think this is actu­al­ly the out­come:

The Wholesale Destruction of Your Wedding Photos

I picked this one because this is real­ly this vis­cer­al image for me of, every time you watch a local news sto­ry about some­body hav­ing a house fire or apart­ment fire, they’ll talk about, We grabbed the kids and the pets, and a box of pho­tos. We had our wed­ding pho­tos. We got the pictures.Everything else we can replace.” Everything else is just stuff. They’ll say it all the time. These are our mem­o­ries. This is who we are. Our phys­i­cal selves, our pho­tos, and every­thing else is just stuff.

It’s espe­cial­ly strik­ing because every sin­gle day we hear about a social net­work­ing ser­vice that suc­ceeds, and what the con­ven­tion­al tech indus­try and the Silicon Valley start­up indus­try defines as suc­cess is:

  1. You sell to one of the big social net­works, and
  2. You delete everybody’s wed­ding pho­tos that they stored on your ser­vice.

So, Posterous is a blog­ging ser­vice that did very well. Therefore they sold to Twitter, and I don’t know if it was last week or next week, but they’re about to shut down and delete every wed­ding pho­to that’s ever been stored on their ser­vice. And there are count­less prece­dents for this. There are many, many star­tups that the con­ven­tion­al thing to do is to say, Good news, com­mu­ni­ty! Number one, we’re all gonna be rich. Two, you’re not get­ting paid. Three, we’re gonna delete your wed­ding pho­tos.” We’ve all got­ten those emails, and we’ve all got­ten them mul­ti­ple times.

So think about the mis­match here. You see peo­ple on the worst day of their lives tear­ful­ly telling the news reporter on cam­era, Well, we got our pho­tos, and we’re all okay.” And on the oth­er hand, we all have our inbox, every sin­gle day, some­body say­ing, We’re going to delete this stuff. By the way, don’t call us we’re on our pri­vate island now that we’re rich.” That’s fas­ci­nat­ing. That’s an incred­i­ble dichoto­my, and that line just nev­er gets con­nect­ed. They’re throw­ing away the thing that we care most about.

They’re Allowed to Do This. These Are the Terms of Service

Of course, why do they do this? They’re allowed to, because of the Terms of Service. Terms of ser­vice that none of us real­ly read. Well, in this room there’s a cou­ple peo­ple that read them, but real­ly, in a nor­mal room, we don’t read them. And there’s ambi­gu­i­ty as to whether they’re enforce­able at all, but the real­i­ty is the terms of ser­vice essen­tial­ly give them carte blanche. We all know this. They can do what­ev­er they want, when­ev­er they want, and our option is that we can take a hike if we don’t like it.

And I want­ed to recon­tex­tu­al­ize this. This is the com­mon state of affairs. We’re all famil­iar with these issues, we’re all famil­iar with the chal­lenges around this. But we tend to look at this as sim­ply the cost of doing busi­ness, or the real­i­ty of the Web ecosys­tem as it is today, and I want­ed to reframe this in an impor­tant was as this is actu­al­ly a bat­tle. This is a bat­tle against val­ues that the ear­ly social web had. I’m talk­ing about a time about a decade ago. It may have end­ed as late as 2005, but between say 1999 and 2005, there was the cre­ation of the social web. This is the rise of every­thing from blog­ging tools to social pho­to shar­ing like Flickr, and a host of oth­er things that even­tu­al­ly got brand­ed Web 2.0 and turned into the social web we have today.

And I got to be wit­ness to it. I was a blog­ger, as David said, ear­ly on. And the inter­est­ing thing to be about being intro­duced as a blog­ger is it’s a lit­tle bit these days like being intro­duced as an email­er.” It’s not real­ly a mean­ing­ful intro­duc­tion. It’s like, this is some­thing hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple do, what do you mean? And part of the rea­son I cling to that as an iden­ti­ty is there was a time when it was a state­ment of iden­ti­ty. It was a mean­ing­ful thing to say I do this task.” Because the com­mu­ni­ty shared val­ues. Because the action was uncom­mon enough that it dis­tin­guished you and who you were. And that is some­thing that’s com­plete­ly evap­o­rat­ed in our per­cep­tion of what the Web is. Nobody’s a Facebooker.” That’s not some­thing any­body ever intro­duces them­selves as being. You might say somebody’s a tweet­er, but prob­a­bly not in a pos­i­tive sense.

So that idea that there was a com­mon­al­i­ty, there was a cul­ture, there were a set of val­ues that were shared, is real­ly impor­tant to under­stand­ing how they could’ve been sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly dis­man­tled. Now, if you’re going to make a state­ment like You’re sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly dis­man­tling the val­ues of a com­mu­ni­ty,” can we show how that’s true?

Software Forbids Journalism

For a start­ing point, we have a lot of soft­ware that for­bids jour­nal­ism. How many of you have an iPhone like I do? This is an excerpt from the iOS App Store’s Terms of Service for devel­op­ers when­ev­er they sub­mit.

We view Apps dif­fer­ent than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to crit­i­cize a reli­gion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or cre­ate a med­ical App.
App Store Review Guidelines [accessed 09/12/2015]

(I like the song” in there.) That’s Apple’s stat­ed pol­i­cy. All of us are con­sum­ing apps, pur­chas­ing apps, and sup­port­ing an econ­o­my with this as its pre­sump­tion. A great thing about this is it’s so open-ended who knows what’s even enforce­able here? It gives a lot of dis­cre­tion to Apple. But I like the idea that if you want to crit­i­cize a reli­gion, write a book. Because that can pre­sum­ably be sold to the iBook­store, so they don’t real­ly have an aver­sion to dis­trib­ut­ing it, just not in exe­cutable form. I won­der why that is. That’s weird, right?

Why are peo­ple who write soft­ware dif­fer­ent than peo­ple who write books, and why are peo­ple who do both, like me, expect­ed to fol­low dif­fer­ent rules in these dif­fer­ent con­texts? Because we all know soft­ware can actu­al­ly do a very very good job of engag­ing and acti­vat­ing peo­ple to per­form dif­fer­ent actions. And this has been proven to be what Apple enforces, so if you look at some­thing like the Drones app, which shows the loca­tions of where drone strikes have tak­en place, American drones, they pro­hib­it­ed it from being dis­trib­uted through the App Store.

So there’s prece­dent here where they’re say­ing, Look, that kind of jour­nal­ism,” even though it doesn’t vio­late these; the drones aren’t actu­al­ly sex, they don’t real­ly say why but, that kind of jour­nal­ism isn’t what we want an app to do.” So we’ve drawn this dis­tinc­tion in kind between what for­mer­ly lived in the world of pub­lish­ing, and what lives as apps. So cer­tain types of speech, cer­tain types of expres­sion, are con­strained when they’re in exe­cutable code as dis­trib­uted by these net­works. That’s a real­ly pow­er­ful con­ces­sion. And the lan­guage is not usu­al­ly this explic­it. But we have the explic­it lan­guage. This is some­thing every iOS devel­op­er whose app you’ve ever down­loaded has agreed to.

They Are Bending the Law to Make Controlling Our Data Illegal

Then there’s the things that are a lit­tle less vis­i­ble, which is shap­ing the law to make the way that we like to con­trol our data ille­gal. The most press­ing exam­ple of this is the con­fla­tion of acts that were for­mer­ly speech with things that are pub­lished as works. So what we do is we bring pub­lic dis­course into the realm of IP law through the terms of ser­vice and through the ways that ser­vices treat our com­mu­ni­ca­tion. There’s a lot of parts here I want to tease out, and I’m not an expert in this by any means, but I’ll take the parts that are most rel­e­vant here.

First is obvi­ous­ly all the social net­works try to oper­ate as com­mon car­ri­ers. They want to see them­selves as neu­tral sub­strates for the infor­ma­tion they trans­fer between peo­ple. Except when it comes to mon­e­tiz­ing it. At this point it becomes a work. This is real­ly impor­tant because there’s no real clear bound­ary here. I can clear­ly sit at home with my son and sing him Happy Birthday,” and that’s allowed. I can do that in a slight­ly medi­at­ed way if I had been out of town for his birth­day, where I could have done it over FaceTime. And I clear­ly can’t put it up on YouTube with me singing Happy Birthday” to him, because then it’s a work. So those are pret­ty well-defined. Somewhere in between, maybe there’s a Vine; that’s only six sec­onds, so that’s kind of short, so maybe that’s okay.

What if the FaceTime was real­ly lag­gy, and it end­ed up being stored or cached along the way in the net­work? What if I acci­den­tal­ly had enabled a fea­ture, or they had a soft­ware bug, where it could be pub­licly broad­cast by peo­ple that chose to tune into it but I didn’t do it on pur­pose? There’s this real­ly open-ended area where we get into like, the speed of trans­mis­sion of the net­work and where its things are cached starts to decide as to whether this is a work that they’re going to mon­e­tize, or that peo­ple can sue me for vio­lat­ing their IP rights around, or whether this is just speech between peo­ple. And of course all the things we can think about when peo­ple are wear­ing wear­able cam­eras and mon­i­tor­ing devices, there’s a real­ly obvi­ous evo­lu­tion here.

A lot of these tenets of this reck­on­ing are very famil­iar to us, but the most impor­tant part here is now we have the indus­try that cre­ates the social net­works explic­it­ly want­i­ng to get involved in the way that IP law evolves. SOPA and PIPA were the most telling exam­ple of this.

But when, for exam­ple Google, puts on their home page a request that peo­ple call their sen­a­tors or write their sen­a­tors about SOPA and PIPA, or when Wikipedia shuts down its home page in order to encour­age action there, what you have is the sce­nario that those of us that thought Citizens United was a bad deci­sion were fight­ing against: cor­po­ra­tions explic­it­ly say­ing influ­ence this pol­i­cy in the direc­tion of our inter­ests.” And yet most of us in the tech world cheered when they did so.

So we said, Please, Google,” one of the biggest com­pa­nies in the world, Please, Facebook,” one of the biggest com­pa­nies in the world, encour­age peo­ple to influ­ence IP pol­i­cy in the way that you pre­fer. Encourage them to call [their] sen­a­tors, and when you do so we will con­grat­u­late you and thank you and reward you for doing so.” And we do this even at the same time as they take our ordi­nary speech where we’re talk­ing to each oth­er on Facebook walls or send­ing each oth­er mes­sages through GMail, and turn­ing them into works that live under the IP regime that we already think is unfair.

So it’s a pret­ty rad­i­cal shift­ing of the goal­posts that’s hap­pen­ing that we’re com­plic­it in. We actu­al­ly cheer them on when they do this thing that in any oth­er con­text… If they put a bumper in front of our DVDs or our films in the the­aters say­ing call your sen­a­tor and tell them to adjust the IP laws in favor of the MPAA or the RIAA, we prob­a­bly would’ve been protest­ing out in front of their offices. And this is a pret­ty dra­mat­ic shift that’s hap­pened, with­out us real­ly object­ing very much at all.

Metadata is Dying, and We Didn’t Even Notice

Then there’s there’s the tech­no­log­i­cal changes. If you go back a decade ago to 2005 or so, meta­da­ta was all the rage. It was in fash­ion amongst the geeks. What you could do with a Flickr pho­to when you took a pho­to, you could geo­t­ag it, you could tag it with a free­text word, you could do machine tags. All those incred­i­ble things bub­ble up. So you start to get, even today when some­body makes a mash-up, here’s all the pho­tos in a cer­tain loca­tion,” they always do it on Flickr, because you can’t do it on Instagram, because the meta­da­ta are thrown away, or are locked into Instagram’s APIs when you do it. And part of this was Flickr was from the old Web. They were from that small com­mu­ni­ty, and they said, We want to share these ideas. We want to share the abil­i­ty to do these things.” It’s the rea­son you can still do that Creative Commons Search. Every sin­gle one of these images on this slide show is that Flickr Creative Commons search I’m sure all of you have done too for pre­sen­ta­tions. And you can’t do it on Instagram because they don’t care about meta­da­ta.

And they suc­ceed­ed, right? Whatever it was, a dozen kids make an app and they sold it to Facebook for a bil­lion dol­lars, and that’s defined as suc­cess. But this is true on many, many lev­els. To be invit­ed by Berkman to speak, for me… Can’t go with­out remark­ing about RSS and the spec that lives at the Berkman Center. You can debate the “RSS is dead” thing on the tech­no­log­i­cal front, but the real­i­ty (and this is some­thing we’ll revis­it lat­er) is that from an end user stand­point, clear­ly this isn’t some­thing any end user has cho­sen. Some of this is our abdi­ca­tion on the tech­no­log­i­cal front of mak­ing open for­mats as appeal­ing, or mak­ing metadata-rich expe­ri­ences as appeal­ing as those. But the real­i­ty is these com­pa­nies are not going to invest in meta­da­ta that makes infor­ma­tion dis­cov­er­able or eas­i­ly share­able.

Links Were Corrupted. Likes Are Next

There’s even more fun­da­men­tal cor­rup­tions of these sys­tems through eco­nom­ics. At the birth of the social web, links were edi­to­r­i­al. They were artis­tic. They were voice. Many of you remem­ber suck​.com from the old­en days. Great site, right? Remember hyper­links in Suck, and they were always these sort of snarky, you had to hov­er on [them] to see where the link went, and you’d be like, Oh, that’s actu­al­ly a punch­line. That’s not just a link.” It was real­ly clever.

Now when you hov­er on a link, it’s to the inter­nal tag page for the New York Times aggre­ga­tion page around the sto­ry. It’s like, I want­ed to read the text of this law, well no it’s not that. This is their tag page about this. And the rea­son why is search engine opti­miza­tion in Google. But the fun­da­men­tal thing that hap­pened here is with the intro­duc­tion of AdSense and AdWords, Google con­vert­ed the mean­ing of links from pure­ly edi­to­r­i­al, pure­ly expres­sive, pure­ly artis­tic, into some­thing that is eco­nom­ic, and imme­di­ate­ly trans­formed what links were.

Back at that time, I was mak­ing blog­ging soft­ware, and you could just put what­ev­er link you want­ed to in a com­ment because you want­ed to send peo­ple to your site and check it out. And link spam hap­pened overnight. It went from there was no rea­son any­body would ever post a link into a com­ment form on the web, into some­thing hap­pen­ing on every sin­gle site that we worked with, in less than six months. So link spam hap­pens and all the oth­er things that hap­pened around SEO hap­pened almost imme­di­ate­ly when links are con­vert­ed into an eco­nom­ic state­ment.

Now, that was what the com­bi­na­tion of links with PageRank and with an econ­o­my did with Google ten years ago. Today, Facebook has what they call EdgeRank, and it’s based on the idea that likes are an expres­sion of your intent. Likes are what you like. Likes are how you feel about that page or that site or that com­pa­ny or that brand or that cause that you have clicked on. Purely edi­to­r­i­al, pure­ly artis­tic. Except when used as the fuel for their eco­nom­ic engine as to how they rank things in your news stream, and what they charge adver­tis­ers on their plat­form.

So we’re in a direct par­al­lel to what hap­pened with links ten years ago. We’re going to see like spam­mers, we’re going to see the like engine opti­miz­ers, we’re going to see the rise of fake likes and like fraud and all the oth­er things that we saw with links going back ten years ago. And this could be Twitter favorites, I’m sure it’ll hap­pen on YouTube when you favorite or star a sto­ry there, or Tumblr hearts. But the real­i­ty is these ges­tur­al things that used to be edi­to­r­i­al and an actu­al indi­ca­tion of peo­ples’ intent get cor­rupt­ed very very quick­ly in these economies, and they take away ways we have of express­ing with one anoth­er in a social con­text.

Again, the excep­tion is when you look at Flickr through this sort of benev­o­lent stag­na­tion under its time with Yahoo!. Favorites on Flickr still mean favorite, and they prob­a­bly will because they’re not going to find a way to mon­e­tize those, prob­a­bly, very soon. But aside from those lit­tle islands, the sort of Galapagos of the social web, for the most part as they’re evolv­ing and try­ing to mon­e­tize things, we’re going to see these ges­tures that used to be about me telling you I liked your work turn into eco­nom­ic actions that then get divorced from their orig­i­nal con­text.

And it’s espe­cial­ly impor­tant to think about how links get trans­formed, and likes get trans­formed in this econ­o­my when we think about these inter­ac­tions.

They Are Gaslighting the Web

I wrote a post to my blog about 18 months ago that got shared a lot on Facebook, and when peo­ple clicked on the link from Facebook to get to my site, they got this mes­sage that I’ll read in part.

Please be care­ful.
For the safe­ty and pri­va­cy of your Facebook account, remem­ber to nev­er enter your pass­word unless you’re on the real Facebook web site. Also be sure to only down­load soft­ware from sites you trust. To learn more about stay­ing safe, [here’s some links].

And then it says you can go through to my site if you go ahead and click con­tin­ue.” Some of you have prob­a­bly seen this if you’ve ever clicked on a Facebook link and seen some­thing like this, a warn­ing, a be care­ful.

There’s a cou­ple inter­est­ing parts here. The under­pin­ning here, the assump­tion, that Facebook is mak­ing is that my site is less trust­wor­thy than theirs. That alone I take some issue with. But let’s grant that. Let’s say it’s true. Let’s say I’m try­ing to steal all your pri­va­cy and they’re not. The inter­est­ing part here is, on my site, today as then, I have Facebook com­ments. And to have Facebook com­ments, you actu­al­ly have to add in lit­tle bits of meta­da­ta to your site, the Open Graph tags that they have. You have to essen­tial­ly reg­is­ter with them and tell them, I’d like to work with­in the Facebook ecosys­tem.” And only then, after they’ve ver­i­fied and val­i­dat­ed your page do they even allow the com­ments to dis­play.

So I’ve explic­it­ly opt­ed in to the Facebook ecosys­tem. Part of this was to prove that I’m not an extrem­ist. I’m a mod­er­ate on these things, I’m not a rad­i­cal. Part of it is because it’s of ser­vice to my read­ers. A lot of them use Facebook and this is a way they can talk about it and share it with their friends. So there’s a con­ve­nience fac­tor. I was seduced, and am, by the same things that we all are while we use the net­works. So I was part of that nar­row slice of the web that had had explic­it­ly gone to them and said, Here I am. Here’s who I am, here’s me vouch­ing for the fact I’d like to par­tic­i­pate in your ecosys­tem.”

And this hap­pened around the same time as they’d intro­duced the Social Reader apps that I’m sure some of you remem­ber. The Washington Post and the Guardian would let you read the sto­ries with­in the con­text of Facebook and it would sort of pro­mote at the top of your time­line and be a lit­tle bit spam­my, but…you’d see those sto­ries, right? Those sites, when you read the Washington Post sto­ry entire­ly with­in the wrap­per of the Facebook expe­ri­ence, nev­er got this warn­ing mes­sage. It nev­er said any­thing about this site might not be trust­wor­thy. It cer­tain­ly nev­er said any­thing about whether the infor­ma­tion on that site might be trust­wor­thy.

But even though I’d opt­ed in, they gave this warn­ing to peo­ple, scar­ing them off, say­ing you shouldn’t click out­side our walls.” You prob­a­bly shouldn’t leave Facebook because it’s not safe. This is the safe place. They do that to the sites that reg­is­ter with them. What do they do to the sites that don’t even reg­is­ter with them, the major­i­ty of the Web? This is some­thing that I was stunned by, and the response from them was inter­est­ing. I wrote about it, because again I have the priv­i­lege of doing so and a lit­tle bit of enough of an audi­ence to ampli­fy it. And I got a sort of friend-of-a-friend email, You know what, this is just a soft­ware bug. It wasn’t sup­posed to do that. It’s sup­posed to have some­thing added to your link that says this one’s okay. He’s alright. He’s with us.”

In the Best Case, We’re Stuck Fixing Their Bugs on Our Budgets

And I believe them. I don’t think it was mali­cious. I don’t think they were say­ing let’s screw this one guy’s tiny blog. I think they just didn’t care. But the strik­ing thing about this was, that means in the best case, all of us are fix­ing bugs in Facebook’s soft­ware with our time and ener­gy, and they’re not— Because there’s no way to report a bug like this, there’s no way to even trou­bleshoot and test enough to know that it’s a bug. If they hadn’t had some­body that want­ed to save face, do the work and look into the soft­ware, I wouldn’t have even known this was an issue.

That’s the best-case sce­nario, is we’re fix­ing their bugs. The worst case is they are delib­er­ate­ly try­ing to shunt traf­fic away from those who don’t par­tic­i­pate ful­ly in their ecosys­tem, don’t give their con­tent over to being con­sumed with­in the net­work. And again that’s one of those clear…okay, this is how the social net­works work, but this is true across the board for all the things that com­pete with the Web. The social net­works com­pete with the open Web, and of course the app that we talked about at the top com­pete with the Web.

So we know ideas locked into apps won’t sur­vive the acqui­si­tion. The first thing you do when you suc­ceed in Silicon Valley and your com­pa­ny is acquired, is you destroy everybody’s wed­ding pho­tos.

Content Tied to Devices Dies When Those Devices Become Obsolete

But this is true at the device lev­el, too. We’ve increas­ing­ly cou­pled our con­tent and our expres­sion to devices that get obso­lete more and more quick­ly. So we have ways of express­ing our­selves at the sim­ple lev­el while this app requires a Retina screen now, and so every­body has to upgrade and do these things. When you get to this sense of these new devices, for­mats get hard­er and hard­er to pre­serve, and this is espe­cial­ly true when there are these pro­pri­etary or under-documented for­mats. Because we’ve giv­en up on for­mats. I know there’s a lot of work here on every­thing from RSS to ebooks to open for­mats, but the real­i­ty is those of us that cared about this stuff (and I spent many years work­ing on open for­mats around all the dif­fer­ent ways of social shar­ing) have lost. Overall, we’ve lost.

Very very few of the con­sumer expe­ri­ences that peo­ple use, or the default apps that come with their devices, work around open for­mats. There are some slight excep­tions around pho­tos, obvi­ous­ly. JPEG is doing pret­ty well. HTML is doing okay. But the core inter­ac­tions of a small, short sta­tus update, or the abil­i­ty to tell some­body you like some­thing, those things aren’t for­mats or pro­to­cols at all. They’re com­plete­ly undoc­u­ment­ed. They can be changed at any time, and there isn’t even the expec­ta­tion that they would be inter­op­er­a­ble. That is per­haps the most dra­mat­ic shift from the ear­ly days of the social web. There, the table stakes, even for the big play­ers, was the expec­ta­tion that you would come to a meet­ing with a bunch of oth­er geeks and hash out some way for things to interop. That was how the Web was built, in its first decade, maybe it’s first fif­teen years. And it went away real­ly, real­ly quick­ly with almost no pub­lic dis­course about the impli­ca­tions of it. Geeks talked about it as an unfor­tu­nate tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment, but not at the cul­tur­al or social lev­el.

So this is the under­pin­ning. There’s an enor­mous amount of changes that are hap­pen­ing. There’s this real­ly inten­tion­al pulling away from things like open for­mats because they are desta­bi­liz­ing to the pow­er of these net­works. They low­er switch­ing costs, all the clas­sic cal­cu­la­tions you have here. But the most impor­tant impli­ca­tion of these things is when we think about what these net­works are try­ing to func­tion as, as pub­lic spaces. I’ve worked on this, too, where the President will do a Twitter town hall, or a Google Hangout, or go to Facebook’s office and sit next to Mark Zuckerberg, and we treat these things as pub­lic spaces. Town hall” indi­cates this is pub­lic space. But if we think about privately-owned pub­lic spaces, we know that dis­sent and trans­gres­sion are not per­mit­ted.

TOS + IP Trumps The Constitution

So what we end up with is the com­bi­na­tion of the terms of ser­vice, plus the evo­lu­tion of IP laws are actu­al­ly trump­ing the Constitution in our pub­lic dis­course. There are things that these net­works can pre­clude us from say­ing, and have the abil­i­ty to pre­clude us from say­ing, that for­mer­ly were speech but are no longer speech. Through these apps, through these social net­works, there’s an incred­i­ble shift, and one real­ly use­ful way to think about this is, every sin­gle mes­sage you said about the elec­tion on Facebook when you got into that debate with your in-laws could have been trans­formed by Facebook on the serv­er into say­ing the oppo­site, and that would be with­in their rights. Now, peo­ple would maybe object to that, but they would cer­tain­ly be allowed to do that. Similarly Apple would reserve the right to say, We’re not going to let you say these things through these apps, or we’re not going to per­mit apps in the store that let you say these things.” And that would be some­thing that they could shift through their cur­rent terms of ser­vice.

You could argue about there being the open Web, the rest of the Web, the rest of the things that don’t go through the App Store as a place to car­ry on the dis­course. But when pub­lic offi­cials them­selves are using these net­works, this is a real­ly real­ly impor­tant con­straint. I live in New York City. After Sandy, we had local offi­cials talk­ing about relief efforts that were only being broad­cast as mes­sages through Facebook. A lot of infra­struc­ture was down. And Facebook was very valu­able there. I don’t want to dimin­ish the impor­tant val­ue that these net­works give to soci­ety. But you had to be logged into Facebook to see where pub­lic relief was hap­pen­ing in the wake of an emer­gency. That’s a strik­ing change.

It’s Never the Pharaoh’s Words that are Lost to History

And then there’s the dis­pos­abil­i­ty fac­tor, the wed­ding pho­tos fac­tor. I kind of don’t care about the elect­ed offi­cials that much. We talk about the Occupy stuff and elect­ed offi­cials, but I’m talk­ing about every­day things. This is the Improv Everywhere, the prank you want to play on your friend, or the birth­day notice, or singing Happy Birthday” to your kid. Those are the things that I’m much more con­cerned about. The every­day person’s inter­ac­tions are what’s most at risk here, and the ways of express­ing our­selves that are just not pos­si­ble like cre­at­ing links that are not about shoot­ing for the SEO econ­o­my, or cre­at­ing likes that aren’t about opti­miz­ing our like strat­e­gy. The clas­sic response to all this is just opt out.”

Are there any ex-Facebook users here, peo­ple that’ve quit? Never been? Abstainers? I respect that very much, but that’s like, 70% of all the abstain­ers in the coun­try are in this room. And I’ve thought, oh I want to be one, but I’m also like, I don’t want to mar­tyr myself to not being able to inter­act with my in-laws, either. They’ve got a grand­son they’ve got to see, and alright I’m on Facebook. And that is the most obvi­ous cost, the social cost. But there are oppor­tu­ni­ty costs. There’s incred­i­ble career costs. I’m a tech­nol­o­gist, but even if I weren’t, could I do my job with­out being on LinkedIn, with­out being on Twitter? Could I mean­ing­ful­ly expand the sphere of oppor­tu­ni­ties that I have open to me?

In a very real way, the begin­nings of being on social networks…if I hadn’t par­tic­i­pat­ed in the blo­gos­phere, I wouldn’t be in this room today. There wasn’t some oth­er path for me to get here. I wasn’t in acad­e­mia, and I wasn’t qual­i­fied in those regards. The way that my ideas could be dis­cov­ered is because I was ear­ly on a net­work that end­ed up being suc­cess­ful and valu­able. And this pat­tern repeats over and over. People talk about me hav­ing a larg­er num­ber of Twitter fol­low­ers than most folks. The main rea­son why is I was ear­ly on that net­work, and the peo­ple who cre­at­ed that net­work put me on their sug­gest­ed user list and priv­i­leged me to have more fol­low­ers. I was for­tu­nate to be in place to be able to take advan­tage of those oppor­tu­ni­ties and I had my own priv­i­leges to get there, but those things are not lev­el play­ing fields today. So there’s a lot of social cost not being on these net­works.

There’s also a real­ly impor­tant point that always gets over­shad­owed. This is sort of a fair­ly like-minded group, peo­ple who are very lit­er­ate in these top­ics. The main rea­son that this shift hap­pened in the social web, I think, is the arro­gance of the peo­ple that cared about the open Web in the ear­ly days. Having been in the room for many of these con­ver­sa­tions, I remem­ber when OpenID was cre­at­ed, and OpenSocial, and all these sort of open-whatever. You can put open” in front of any­thing, and peo­ple would’ve got­ten behind it.

We did sin­cere­ly care about enabling all these pos­i­tive things for users. We want­ed to pro­tect and pre­serve these things for users. But the way that we went about it effec­tive­ly end­ed up being so arro­gant that Mark Zuckerberg’s vision seemed more appeal­ing, which is extra­or­di­nary. Like, again, for me to think a guy that made a pri­vate club for Ivy League kids to rate each oth­ers’ attrac­tive­ness was more appeal­ing than what I was work­ing on and more inclu­sive real­ly rocked a lot of my assump­tions about how we went about build­ing tech­nol­o­gy. Some of this was usabil­i­ty and user expe­ri­ence and just sim­plic­i­ty and design. Those are all impor­tant. But some of this was how we told the sto­ry. What we thought mat­tered. The way we went about talk­ing about these things. I look back a lot at the…despite all the pos­i­tive things that have hap­pened from the social Web, some of the missed oppor­tu­ni­ties around encour­ag­ing pos­i­tive con­tri­bu­tions and mak­ing a true pub­lic space, and I have to think that if we had been lis­ten­ing more, and if we had been a lit­tle more open in self-crit­i­cism, it would’ve been real­ly valu­able.

And this refrain keeps com­ing back, even with the SOPA and PIPA con­ver­sa­tion a year ago. There was a lot of tri­umphal­ism about the geeks won.” They impact­ed pol­i­cy in the way they pre­ferred. But to get there required an extra­or­di­nary amount of hyper­bole. We had to say This is a threat to the First Amendment. Free speech is being destroyed.” And, you know, maybe it’s true, but it’s a lit­tle bit exag­ger­at­ed, a lit­tle bit ampli­fied, and it worked that once but does any­body think we could do that again, every time we need­ed to? It doesn’t scale, right.

So that will­ing­ness to pat our­selves on the back uncrit­i­cal­ly. Look, we won. We beat the evil movie indus­try.” It’s like, these were our allies. These were ear­ly free speech advo­cates, the cre­ative indus­tries, and music, and movies. That we should iden­ti­fy with them as artists, and that we’re vil­i­fy­ing them seems like somebody’s get­ting over a pret­ty good trick on us. Our biggest ene­mies are peo­ple who sup­port cre­ative indus­tries? That can’t be the case. And again, that comes from this arro­gance of Oh, they’re dinosaurs. They’re a lega­cy indus­try.”

I know peo­ple in this room tend to be a lit­tle more evolved in their think­ing, but the peo­ple that we count on to ral­ly behind our efforts, they don’t see us being pub­licly crit­i­cal of one anoth­er, or crit­i­cal of our­selves. And I think that that’s one of the rea­sons it didn’t work. That’s one of the rea­sons that the open Web sort of fad­ed away. Because it wasn’t as com­pelling a vision as what could be told by those who would rather con­trol it. And for some­thing to seem less inclu­sive than an effort like Facebook or Apple, who are incred­i­bly insu­lar cul­tures, incred­i­bly arro­gant cul­tures, they’re not egal­i­tar­i­an in the ways they look at cre­at­ing tech­nol­o­gy at all. And they still were more appeal­ing. I think that’s some­thing that we should look at very very seri­ous­ly with some reflec­tion and try to under­stand why it was that their vision was more appeal­ing.

The oth­er defen­sive thing a lot of us want to say is it’s only some of the Web, right? It’s just Facebook. It’s just Twitter. You can get by fine with­out it. People in this room do, right? And it’s fun­ny because this assump­tion comes from the again from those ear­ly days that we built the social Web for pages. The Web was made for pages, right? It’s meant to pub­lic aca­d­e­m­ic papers. That’s what it was designed to do.

Wireframe illustration of a common two-column web layout

And we think of pages and I always think of some­thing like this, this sort of clas­sic web page lay­out. A bunch of box­es like the New York Times home page. And an inter­est­ing thing that hap­pened in the past decade is this mod­el of what a web page looks like has shift­ed to this, to a stream.

Wireframe of the previous page layout, linearized into a single column

This is increas­ing­ly how we con­sume our infor­ma­tion. If we think about whether its on our mobile phones or where we spend the day cruis­ing up and down in a brows­er, there are all these nar­row, single-column streams of the infor­ma­tion we want to con­sume that we’re con­stant­ly refresh­ing. This starts about a decade ago. If we look at about the last fif­teen years, we can look at the things that pop up.

You have Blogger in 1999, and that’s the first hier­ar­chi­cal, clas­sic stream of infor­ma­tion. Then GMail actu­al­ly becomes a stream in 2004; it’s one of the most rad­i­cal things, why peo­ple didn’t like the orig­i­nal GMail inbox. Twitter of course pops up in 2006. And we go on and on through Facebook, through Tumblr, through Pinterest, through LinkedIn, through YouTube. And the inter­est­ing that hap­pens here around this time point in 2010, 2011, 2012 is you go from sites that already exist­ed like LinkedIn and YouTube but were pages, and they shift to being streams. So the home page of YouTube… YouTube’s embed­ded on more sites than any oth­er wid­get any­where on the web, so they have tons and tons of data. Google has all the data in the world.) And they take some­thing that used to be a reg­u­lar set of pages, and if you go right now to your YouTube home page, take a look. It’s a stream of stuff that’s the most recently-updated at the top.

The most dra­mat­ic one to me was a cou­ple weeks ago, Yahoo! changed their home page to a stream. So this behav­ior, across the board, has shift­ed. Meanwhile, the media indus­try is still mak­ing pages. And those of us that talk about this stuff from the the­o­ry stand­point are still mak­ing pages. These streams are expe­ri­enced by users as apps. They feel like apps. They don’t feel like pages. So the fun­da­men­tal mod­el of what we think the Web is is wrong. This is again that exam­ple of us say­ing we know how the web works, we’re the geeks, we’re the tech­nol­o­gists, and users choos­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent. Because if you look at this time frame of time spent for users, what per­cent­age of their time online is spent in a stream expe­ri­ence, it just goes up and up and up.

Graph representing time spent in streams at years from 1998 projected to 2013, with various web services shown at their year of launch

It cross­es about half the time peo­ple spend online in 2010, is in a stream-based expe­ri­ence. And it’s going to prob­a­bly be about three-quarters…there’s an esti­ma­tion here on the right end of this chart. But the per­cent­age of time spent online, and the way peo­ple spend that time, is by look­ing for the next item in a stream. Yet most of our con­ver­sa­tions ignore that real­i­ty. In fact this number’s prob­a­bly even high­er if we con­sid­er phones. Every sin­gle thing you read on your phone is just you going up and down through some stream of infor­ma­tion.

The rea­son this is impor­tant is these streams are con­trolled access. These are limited-access high­ways. These are things where they con­trol the on-ramp, and they con­trol the for­mat­ting, and they con­trol the way that you can design it, and your Facebook page can be what­ev­er col­or you want as long as it’s blue. And this is part of the mech­a­nism through which they are con­strain­ing the con­ver­sa­tion. And we sort of don’t real­ly talk about it. This is again anoth­er one of those mis­match­es between what the open Web advo­ca­cy com­mu­ni­ty says and what users actu­al­ly do. Nobody with open Web val­ues has made any­where near as pop­u­lar or use­ful or com­pelling a stream as any of these providers. In fact, we all rely on them for our dis­tri­b­u­tion.

So I can have my inde­pen­dent blog, but if it’s not being pro­mot­ed through one of these net­works, nobody sees it. If it’s not being inject­ed in one of these streams in a for­mat that’s con­sum­able in one of these streams, that’s com­pat­i­ble with what they call native adver­tis­ing, which is stream items that are ads, then it doesn’t get seen. It’s a real­ly big issue. So the pat­tern that the geeks tend to have here is they say let’s fight the last war, let’s fix the last bat­tle. Let’s go and make an open-source ver­sion of that old thing.

This is what when peo­ple make a Diaspora, when peo­ple make an App​.net, or what­ev­er their reflex­ive reac­tion is, they say let’s make one of the old ones. What they need to do is say what’s a new kind of stream that would be com­pelling enough for nor­mal peo­ple to use. Because nor­mal peo­ple nev­er switch apps. They might adopt new ones and those might slow­ly dis­place their old ones, but they nev­er switch apps. And they cer­tain­ly nev­er switch to some­thing that is an open-source replace­ment that’s bet­ter than the old one. The excep­tion every­body wants to point to is Mozilla, and it hap­pened once with Firefox. And IE had to be the worst brows­er in the his­to­ry of the Internet. And Microsoft had to be one of the most evil com­pa­nies in the his­to­ry of the tech­nol­o­gy indus­try. If you can cre­ate that cir­cum­stance again, great. But you prob­a­bly won’t.

So, What Do We Do?

So that’s all of the bad news. You should be suf­fi­cient­ly depressed at this point to say We’re doomed.” And the ques­tion always comes up, is it just over? Do we just give up? Is Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter the new ABC, NBC, and CBS? And I don’t think so, nec­es­sar­i­ly. Part of the rea­son why is I do believe social tech­nolo­gies fol­low pat­terns, and the tech­nol­o­gy indus­try as a whole is cycli­cal. These things come around. Once you under­stand that, you under­stand the pen­du­lum from, in the same way that we go from main­frames being rebrand­ed as the cloud, we start to think about some­thing like per­son­al com­put­ing and we think there is going to be an anal­o­gy where peo­ple pull things from the cloud into some area that they have more con­trol and pro­gram­ma­bil­i­ty about.

Will it be called per­son­al? Maybe. Will it be called com­put­ing? Almost cer­tain­ly not. But we can absolute­ly imag­ine that cycli­cal­i­ty tak­ing place again. And Google couldn’t be doing a bet­ter imper­son­ation of Micro[soft] cir­ca late 90s if they tried. They have two oper­at­ing sys­tems, nobody under­stands why. They’re throw­ing every­thing but the kitchen sink out there. Microsoft used to make car soft­ware back then, too. They’re explic­it­ly try­ing to become the evil empire, but they kind of don’t real­ize it.

So that’s great. We have to rec­og­nize there’s going to be a sim­i­lar cor­rec­tion, and there’s going to be a sim­i­lar gen­er­al pub­lic feel­ing of over­reach on the part of Google. They’re say­ing, You know, they’re mak­ing me feel itchy in the way that Microsoft did back in 1997.” And something’s going to be done about it. The strik­ing thing here is, in that case pol­i­cy real­ly worked. The con­sent decree in 2001/2002, the changes and the impact it had on Microsoft is that now Chrome is the num­ber one brows­er in the world. IE’s an after­thought for devel­op­ers. They get to it, but they get to it last, after Chrome, after Firefox, after Mobile Safari.

The geeks always want to blame this on the shift to mobile or what­ev­er, but the real­i­ty is pub­lic pol­i­cy can be a real­ly real­ly effec­tive part of address­ing the prob­lems in the tech­nol­o­gy indus­try. I think the brows­er wars demon­strate that real­ly effec­tive­ly, and we’re going to see that sim­i­lar­ly with pol­i­cy around social net­work­ing. And it’s com­ing. There’s no ques­tion about it, not least because everybody’s so lib­er­tar­i­an in Silicon Valley that they’re doing no job of prepar­ing for it.

There Are Apps That Want to Do the Right Thing

It’s also this idea that apps want to do the right thing. This is my shame­less plug; I’m work­ing on one called ThinkUp that I’m hop­ing demon­strates this. But there’s a lot of soft­ware that is try­ing to embody the val­ues of the social Web, and this is again that cycli­cal­i­ty. People respond to this.

The prob­lem is it’s been expressed as the once-a-year Kickstarter for some app that says, Screw Facebook, give us fifty bucks,” and it tends to work, and a bunch of geeks get on Hacker News and they give to it, and they do or they don’t ship an app. Usually they nev­er ship any­thing and nobody ever uses it and then they try again the next year. That pattern’s got to end. And part of the rea­son it’s been in effect so far is peo­ple haven’t made apps that peo­ple want from the open Web com­mu­ni­ty. They make sci­ence projects. They make tool kits. And I think we need to again be much more crit­i­cal of peo­ple cre­at­ing in the open Web vein and say, Are you mak­ing some­thing peo­ple want to use every day? That a nor­mal per­son would want to use every day?” Are you speak­ing with respect? Are you being more sen­si­tive and atten­tive to what users want than Mark Zuckerberg? Than Jack Dorsey is? I think it’s impor­tant to ask those ques­tions.

But there are apps out there that want to do the right thing. We need to shep­herd them and coach them into doing things in a way that’s appeal­ing to peo­ple, not least because we count on very very young peo­ple to do this. We talk to 23 year-olds and ask them to do this, and one of the hard things to keep in mind is they were in 5th grade when this stuff was work­ing as the open Web did in its begin­ning. They don’t remem­ber. They weren’t allowed to. They weren’t old enough to get into the sign-up process to be able to see how Flickr worked at the begin­ning. So it’s very very easy to over­look the fact that there isn’t a cul­tur­al lit­er­a­ture. There are very very few places— Even if they have a great edu­ca­tion, you go to the best schools in this coun­try (and this is one of them), it’s very hard to learn the his­to­ry of the per­son­al soft­ware indus­try. You can learn about the busi­ness side. You can learn about the rise of Microsoft and the con­sent decree and the DOJ case, and you can learn about how they built HP, and all this they were in a garage” and what they did.

But how soft­ware impact­ed cul­ture, what did hap­pen with the desk­top office suite wars in the 80s and the 90s? There’s very very lit­tle lit­er­a­ture. And the strik­ing thing about this is that’s true despite the fact that the prin­ci­pal actors in those bat­tles are still alive, still active in the soft­ware indus­try. The inven­tors of the spread­sheet and PowerPoint and Microsoft Word, they’re all still alive and active, and you can email them. And even despite that being true, we can’t learn from them about what does it look like when you go through a bat­tle with oth­er com­peti­tors where users are at stake, and how does it impact once you actu­al­ly get to the point where some­body wins and the monop­oly pow­er gets all the pow­er. These are things that we need to think about as as impor­tant a part of tech­nol­o­gy edu­ca­tion as the bits and bytes and how you make the apps.

There Are Insights to be Gleaned from Owning Data

One of the oth­er prin­ci­ples that I think peo­ple are start­ing to under­stand at a cul­tur­al lev­el is that we can learn things from observ­ing our­selves. People call it quan­ti­fied self,” which is like, I can’t imag­ine a less-attractive way to describe the behav­ior of keep­ing track of what you do. But there is an instinc­tive feel of, Well, if I keep track of what I eat every day I might lose some weight, and if I see how far I’m man­ag­ing to run when I get off the couch it might encour­age me to get off the couch a lit­tle more often.” Interestingly, we don’t look at any of our online social behav­iors as quan­tifi­able parts of our self.

It’s the strangest thing. The thing that’s already dig­i­tal, that already exists in a com­put­er, we don’t have any way of see­ing. Am I spend­ing more time on these net­works than I did yes­ter­day? Am I spend­ing more time con­sum­ing streams than pages? And we rely on some mar­ket­ing com­pa­ny to give us these broad stats, or we hope to find the right Pew report that somebody’s already cre­at­ed for us. Is strik­ing because it’s much eas­i­er for me to track my heart rate than it is to track how often I’m read­ing Twitter.

And I’m very mind­ful of this. I have a two year-old son and I think I’ve spent more time read­ing my Twitter time­line than I’ve spent read­ing to him since he was born, and I’m not proud of that. I don’t like to think of myself as history’s worst mon­ster, but you’re like gosh, is that who I want to be? And if that is who I am, how do I jus­ti­fy it? How am I tak­ing my invest­ment in that time and say­ing it’s mean­ing­ful or worth­while. These are the vec­tors through which we can dis­place the net­works that don’t have the val­ues that the open Web cares about. By focus­ing on mean­ing, by focus­ing on emo­tion, by focus­ing on expres­sion, by focus­ing on the artists. These are all things that those net­works are ter­ri­ble for. We have to be able to do bet­ter than them on these regards, right? If you allow one more col­or than blue, you’re ahead of Facebook.

There are Institutions That Still Care About a Healthy Web

Importantly, there are insti­tu­tions that care about a healthy open Web. This is obvi­ous­ly one of them. This is informed by the work that I got to do with [inaudi­ble] non-profit with the White House. We were archiv­ing the inter­ac­tions peo­ple had with the White House Twitter and Facebooks accounts, because the Presidential Records Act requires it. A lot of good rea­sons. You want the his­tor­i­cal record of what the President says to the pub­lic. This man­i­fests itself in many dif­fer­ent ways. The White House has a pod­cast, so you had White House interns (all of whom were prob­a­bly Ivy League grads) copy­ing and past­ing iTunes com­ments out of iTunes and past­ing them into Word so that they would have a record of what peo­ple said about the pod­cast.

There has to be a bet­ter way, right? We can make tech­nol­o­gy to do this. So we did this with Facebook. We’ll archive what peo­ple say on the President’s Facebook wall. Which is hor­ri­ble, you don’t want to read it. But it has to be done. And inter­est­ing­ly, at the time we start­ed doing this, three maybe four years ago, Facebook’s terms of ser­vice pro­hib­it­ed archiv­ing your social graph for more than 24 hours, because it had to be kept up to date for their rea­sons. But you had a direct ten­sion between fed­er­al law and the terms of ser­vice. In that case, I think Facebook actu­al­ly sin­cere­ly want­ed to change the pol­i­cy so they end­ed up chang­ing the pol­i­cy to where you could archive it longer. But gosh I wish they hadn’t. It would’ve been amaz­ing to see them shut down the White House Facebook account for vio­lat­ing the terms of ser­vice, right?

So we have to look for these things where we can be civi­cal­ly active in use­ful ways through tech­nol­o­gy. It’s fas­ci­nat­ing to me the rev­er­ence peo­ple have for terms of ser­vice. It’s not law, it’s just terms of ser­vice. Break it some­times. See what hap­pens. Because geeks, there’s this weird thing where they see code is con­stant­ly change­able, always has bugs, some you you can fix. But terms of ser­vice, this is immutable. This is carved in stone. So why the rev­er­ence? It’s because we haven’t done a good enough job of edu­cat­ing peo­ple. Those will change. If you’re effec­tive enough, those will change.

PR trumps terms of ser­vice ten times out of ten. Every sin­gle time. So if Instagram changed its terms of ser­vice and you don’t like it and you raise a big enough stink, guess what: they change it back. In that case they prob­a­bly change it back to some­thing worse, but hey we don’t always get it right. And that part of actu­al­ly just being able to beat on your drum and tell a sto­ry and that trump­ing every oth­er pow­er they have has been under­uti­lized. And it’s not the same thing as SOPA and PIPA’s com­ing and let’s get active on this pol­i­cy. It’s actu­al­ly look­ing at our­selves and our cul­ture as being neg­a­tive­ly impact­ed by the terms of ser­vice, by the poli­cies of these com­pa­nies, and assum­ing our agency over them. We can cor­rect things. The tra­di­tion­al vec­tor it’s been done on is through pol­i­cy, through the Department of Justice issu­ing a con­sent decree, through these oth­er mech­a­nisms. And that’s great. That’s fine, but it’s slow as hell. It doesn’t work any­where near as fast as the tech­nol­o­gy indus­try should work.

So we need to think about ways to gal­va­nize and orga­nize around effec­tive­ly tar­get­ing, and it could be spe­cif­ic claus­es in terms of ser­vice. Like what if we actu­al­ly focused on Facebook’s terms of ser­vice once clause as a time in the same detailed way we do with pub­lic pol­i­cy and looked for some account­abil­i­ty? Because they’re not going to offer it up on their side. In fact, Facebook explic­it­ly end­ed the abil­i­ty of the com­mu­ni­ty to vote on the terms of ser­vice when there were changed. Now, that was a farce any­way, because it required one third of all Facebook users to agree to a change, and I don’t have 300 mil­lion Facebook friends. I don’t know if you do. But it’s a pret­ty hard thing to pull togeth­er. It was always this sort of token effort, but they even elim­i­nat­ed the token effort at account­abil­i­ty.

So then we have to go with what we have. The good news is even though the terms of ser­vice and the IP poli­cies are work­ing togeth­er and being shaped by these com­pa­nies to qui­et down or elim­i­nate any of the objec­tions and the protests against it, peo­ple have already cho­sen the path of civ­il dis­obe­di­ence. The most com­pelling exam­ple of this I always come back to and I’m so inspired by is YouTube. If you go to YouTube and you look at con­tent that peo­ple are ille­gal­ly upload­ing or upload­ing in vio­la­tion of copy­right law, do a search for no infringe­ment intend­ed.” It’s poet­ry to me. No infringe­ment intend­ed” or I don’t own this,” 12 year-olds have a lot of dif­fer­ent ways of say­ing (I guess they’re 15 in terms of their sign-ups), but the ways that they say, You know, I’m not try­ing to step on your toes, and I know there’s some rea­son I shouldn’t do this, but the world needs to see this video and I’m going to put it up here.”

I’m so inspired by that because if we had any oth­er con­text where hun­dreds of thou­sands of teenagers were assem­bling in pub­lic to vio­late fed­er­al law that didn’t match the way cul­ture worked, the way they thought cul­ture should work, we would rec­og­nize it for what it is, which is a mas­sive act of civ­il dis­obe­di­ence. This is a Million Mixer March. It takes place every sin­gle day, peo­ple going up and say­ing, I know what your laws are, but I know what’s right. I know what’s right for me as an artist, as an indi­vid­ual, some­body who wants to express them­selves with cul­ture. And I’m going to do what I need to do. And I’m going to make a nod to I don’t don’t intend to infringe’ but I have to trans­gress because it’s the thing the world needs. It’s the way I need to express myself. This is speech between me and my friends, not a work for you to mon­e­tize.”

And they’re doing it every sin­gle day. Ordinary peo­ple are doing this every sin­gle day. They are vio­lat­ing the terms of ser­vice, and they are vio­lat­ing the restric­tive IP laws because they don’t match. That’s the oppor­tu­ni­ty. That’s the excit­ing part. People are doing this every sin­gle day. That’s why I’m real­ly real­ly opti­mistic we can find a new Web.

Thank you all.


Audience 1: Hi. I'm going to start with a narrow point, but it's the first one you brought up so I'm going to go with it. If I stored my wedding photos at the local U-Haul and they suddenly threw them away without telling me, that would violate various laws and I would have civil recourse, and it just wouldn't happen. U-Haul knows better than to do that. Why wouldn't the exact same provisions apply to these online places?

Anil: I don't know. I wish I did. I'm certainly on legal expert. I think there was an assumption of disposability baked into the culture of the Web early on that this didn't count, this wasn't real. And I think almost all digital culture. You see the sheer amount of effort going into preserving old video games. It feels like that's 20% of what Kickstarter does, is old video games being revived. And I think that's great, but part of it is because the community of people that care about those things got a face-to-face glimpse with the threat of it being forever destroyed. And I think that issue of disposability is only sort of corrected by the generation of people coming up that are in legal power and financial power enough to say, actually digital culture is as important as everything else. But there are countless disconnects between physical property law and digital property law, and right now they only ever work in favor of the companies that was to throw our stuff away, as opposed to treating it as our possessions. It's extraordinary to me, and I think some of it is just the reframing. I think if legislators and lawmakers saw your digital shoebox is as important as the photos in your U-Haul, or something as equivalent, but very few of us are telling them that.

Audience 2: First a comment, then a question. About a week ago I was at the Kennedy School for a seminar on digital politics. And the people from Facebook and Google, both of them have two different teams, one of them Republican one Democrat, working with politicians, and supposedly a Chinese wall. And it was interesting to me that nobody brought up, what about the interests of Facebook and Google in reference to politics. That's my comment.

My question is, the latest iteration of digital rights and SOPA and PIPA and all of that stuff supposedly is the terms of service become law. That's what I read on the web, and if you say, as the emails that I get tell me, if I saw that I'm a 150 pounds rather than 172 on my dating profile, I have committed a felony. I'm wondering about that in relation to what you're talking [about].

Anil: We've already seen terms of service become de facto law or de jure law. I think with DVD decryption and other aspects, we have policy being delegated to terms of service, but being enforced with the full context as if it were public policy. And I think it's one of the great dangers of the sort of dynamic policy systems a lot of people are talking about. It's like, "Oh, you know, we'll have things be much more responsive to what the public wants," and those are assuming that there are healthy ecosystems for exchange that are not controlled by these companies, which seems like an increasingly bad assumption right now.

I think the solution again is in that "PR trumps TOS" realm. We have to find really good artists that understand these issues to demonstrate them in a cogent way. I think the artists that made good use of Bittorrent to show legal uses of it were very very effective in keeping from criminalizing all non-standard or peer-to-peer distribution. I think we need to look at something similar around really realizing the implications of these terms of service. I love the example of your dating profile being a felony if you misrepresent yourself, because certainly everybody can understand that.

But we have precedent going back decades of your video rental history being private. These are things that it's not a new issue in the scale of people that it impacts and the everyday reality of it are what's changed. The difference now is theoretically we should have more of a voice. The problem is I think we've abdicated a lot of our lobbying to the Internet Association, [which is] pretty much controlled by these big companies. There is the assumption that small startups and open Web advocates have the same interests as the big companies. So we're all on the same side of H-1Bs and net neutrality and a couple other things; we all are in a bucket together? And I think we need to draw much broader distinctions. The small and the big actually have very little in common on the policy issues that matter.

Audience 3: I actually see three separate trends that are conforming here. We're losing control of our data, as moving on these third-party sites with different rules and different laws and different access. We're losing control of the endpoints, because I no longer have the right to put whatever software I want on this. [Holding up phone] I can't even write a file erasure program, because I don't have access to the memory map. The third is we're losing control of our applications. Instead of owning a copy of Word, we tend to be using a web app or licensing an app for use, which then changes. And the model I like [inaudible] it's really really powerful is we're moving into a feudal model of computing. So if I pledge allegiance to Google, they will protect me. At least that's the deal, but of course in any feudal model, they could also sell me down the river. And if you go back to feudalism, the way we got out of that is we had the rise of the nation-state that said to the feudal lords, "You not only have these rights, but you have these responsibilities." So I think that's a good overarching metaphor to describe where we are and how to get out of it.

Anil: I love that analogy. One of the things I think about a lot is who has incentives in the market to overthrow that model. And there's a lot of different ways. My day job is I'm CEO of a company making a software app, and it talks to Facebook's API and Twitter's API. So there's this reckoning of like, I can say "F the police" all I want, but I have to ship software and somebody has to use it, and what am I going to do about this. And one of the premises I have is I think you can build apps that work within their constraints, but don't necessarily have to follow the same path towards success being destroying your photos if you have the sort of economic underpinnings of building your company a different way, if you have a closer alignment with what users want. And I think the feudal model, that's really powerful. I think it's a really effective analogy for the situation we find ourselves in.

But I think about something like imagine a cloud app store. So instead of it running on this closed device I run on one of these open cloud systems, or on any Linux system or something. And again this goes back to ten years ago, there used to be mom and pop web hosts. People would sign up for web hosting space, you get an email address and 20 megs of storage, and you would shoehorn your WordPress install up there, and you were good to go. That market's gone now. We only have cloud computing or whatever. But there is some degree of interoperability between Amazon or Rackspace and IBM or whatever.

And I picture, what about an app that runs there, accessible through my browser, instead of on my phone. Because there's actually much more leverage with those providers. There's much more portability with those providers, and there aren't just two players. Amazon obviously is dominant, but they're sort of not even looking at control at that level, and that's interesting. And I think that that to me feels most cyclically similar to the move from when people were like "How are we ever going to unseat Windows?" And Microsoft bundling Internet Explorer probably did more to unseat Windows than anything else. So the web browser has that ability to disrupt.

I think that's probably part of it, but there's… You know, who's going to tell a 20 year-old kid doing a startup like, "Look, somebody's dangling a quarter million dollar check in front of you but you want to take it from this other person for two hundred thousand because they'll let you build your app this way without architecture that's dependent on these things." That's such a rare air, narrow—like, there isn't a pithy… I think what Lessig was doing a dozen years ago articulating IP law to people was so powerful, but it took years and years and years of him doing the best PowerPoints anybody'd ever seen before anybody ever understood the stakes. And here we have something even geekier, even wonkier, even more obscure, and the time urgency is actually much faster, because this isn't "Disney's going change IP law in ten years," this is well, the window's going to close.

Despite that I'm still optimistic, but I do think we are pledging the camps that we're in, and worse, it's also tied to fashion and to social status now. So if you don't agree to live within the feudal walls of Apple's kingdom, you are out of fashion. Or maybe Google or Apple are your choices for a phone, and you look at this sort of (Well, you look at the number of Apple laptops here.) but you go to a tech conference and say, "We use Exchange and Outlook" and [disdainful expression]. "Gosh, I'm so sorry." So that intersection with fashion and culture is something really important and not something we talk about very much.

David Weinberger: I'm afraid that's all the time that we have. Thank you so much.

Anil: Thank you.

Further Reference

Original event listing at the Berkman Center site.

"The Web We Lost" at Anil's site, a precursor to this presentation, and "How We Lost the Web," a follow-up with links expanding on various points (some integrated above).

Notes from David Weinberger and Doc Searls.

Betsy O'Donovan created a Storify collection of tweets about the presentation.


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