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.
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?
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/pops, 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.")
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:
- You sell to one of the big social networks, and
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
Original event listing at the Berkman Center site.
Betsy O'Donovan created a Storify collection of tweets about the presentation.