When The Garden Walls Come Crumbling Down

Or what would happen if Facebook went GPL

In thesis no. 93 The Cluetrain Manifesto claims :

We’re both inside companies and outside them. The boundaries that separate our conversations look like the Berlin Wall today, but they’re really just an annoyance. We know they’re coming down. We’re going to work from both sides to take them down.

I agree. I experience these annoyances on a daily basis. Sometimes I have to really constrain myself not to let go of my temper, because I feel that our insights in many ways far precede our abilities to apply these to practical use. For instance, I cannot understand that while I do 95% of my banking via the internet, most banks do not put 95% of their ressources to work to give me as a customer the best possible online banking experience. Even less would probably do. If they just put 80% behind it, that would probably suffice. But they don’t. I am also annoyed when I have to communicate with my daughter’s doctor via an online form which permits only a limited amount of characters, largely because they do not trust email as a means of communication. In fact, I am always annoyed when people who presumably wants to communicate with me, don’t let me communicate back on equal terms. I find that arrogant. As far as possible I resist their attempts to control the way in which I should communicate with them.

The rooms in which we speak

Architectures are important. They are the ways we construct the rooms in which we speak. The “conversations” of The Cluetrain Manifesto take place within the framework of such architectures. They have names such as Facebook, Twitter and Google. Other such architectures are called things like WordPress, Joomla, MediaWiki, Firefox, RSS and GNU/Linux. They have a tremendous impact on the ways we communicate online, on the ways in which we filter our incoming information streams, and on the ways we enable new connections and enable new ideas to reach others, and enable their ideas to reach us. As important as architecture is, so more important is ownership : that we claim ownership to the tools we use. That we claim ownership to the channels and the walls that decide who will learn to know us, who will receive our message, and who will be filtered out, who will not. We decide what walls are torn down and what are built. With the web and simple tools we can, and we do.

Many of the software architectures that we employ, from the webserver and webscripting functionality of Apache and PHP to the popular self-publishing power of tools such as WordPress, are free software. I.e. built and easily adaptable by anyone who wants to adapt them for particular purposes.

Walled gardens

Other architectures are walled gardens, maintained by organizations and companies, who are not concerned about the choice of their customers. While companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google offer greatly useful applications to their customers, their services impose limits on their use. In short, they choose to remain in control. They choose not to release the source code. Not to let their users adapt the tools they’re offering to their particular purpose.

If a company such as Facebook or Twitter goes bankrupt, users will lose their data – no compensation, no anything. There’s no obvious way to retrieve data from these services, and since the code is not free, one can’t write tools to retrieve those data by oneself. While most of these services offer useful and advanced interfaces so that programmers can access their data from the outside, the service stays in control. You can’t obtain access to data they don’t want you to obtain access to. Facebook ultimately decides who they like to write applications for “their” platform. Twitter abolishes user accounts at their whim, because ultimately Twitter decides. Ultimately, Google decides to pull the plug on a GMail or YouTube account, on grounds they choose, not their customers.

These walls of proprietary ownership are the Berlin walls of today. We meet them everywhere, when we are annoyed we can’t do certain things with the tools we use. When we communicate within the confines of architectures that we do not own and do not feel comfortable with, because they disallow us to be ourselves. In the worst case, we hit them head on when we find that our account on some service has been abolished unfairly, with nothing we can say to get our data back. When a service ceases to be in business, a product ceases to be supported, or a new company policy is enforced in spite of what we feel about it.

So how are these walls going to come crumbling down?

Free software

As I do here and have often argued, the only way we can operate freely in our online environments is if and when we ourselves are able to create, adapt, control and empower the architectures that we employ. We need our software and online services to be as easily adaptable as any article on Wikipedia. Wikipedia is enabled by the clever use of a particular architecture in combination with a copyright in reverse known as “copyleft”. The GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) license ensures that every contribution to Wikipedia’s articles can be freely adapted and re-distributed by others.

Until now, free software have also relied on copyright. Similar to Wikipedia’s license, the General Public License (GPL) which is commonly used for most free software projects ensures that the code stays open and can be manipulated by anyone, no matter who distributes or sells it.

But free software need not depend on copyright. The greatest barrier to the spread of free software is that so many do not understand why it is important. Too many business executives cannot see, that it is as beneficial to them as to their customers, that they facilitate their customers’ ability to change and adapt the code. Too many organizations do not understand that releasing their source code opens up new, decentralized, flexible and less costly ways to organize their activities. And too many internet users (myself included) are too convenient with their habitual uses of proprietary online tools to question deeply and realize what’s at stake. We also find time to be a scarce good, since we also have to work to pay our bills – often inside companies led by execs who don’t “get it”.

How things look from the inside

The free software movement is “working on the outside” to bring down these walls. But on the inside, every Facebook, Google and Twitter employee is also an internet user and customer. They are people who talk using these same tools, they have other lives, they quit and start their own businesses, in short they engage in conversations where they go (or are allowed to go, by their companies). What limitations in ownership are put in place by their companies also limit their ability to deliver the best possible product, the best possible service and the best way to help solve their customer’s problems. They are equally annoyed by the corporate walls put in place beyond their control.

There are two great problems which faces the walled corporations, now and in the future :

1. They will increasingly encounter free architectures and services, which may yet perform poorly, but have much greater potential to outgrow and outperform their proprietary competitors.

2. As clever candidates everywhere discover their own ability to build and employ free architectures of their own choosing and flavour and adapt them to suit their own particular purposes, companies will find it increasingly harder to find qualified candidates to fill positions. What’s attractive in working under the command of a boss, if you can work for yourself? What’s the attraction in working for a company, whose business model is not adaptable to the open environments spreading on the web?

What if Facebook went GPL?

In closing, let me speculate aloud to show an example of the business landscape I believe will replace the walled gardens of today’s corporate environment. Among many online applications, Facebook is probably the service with which I have the most problematic relationship. There’s no doubt in my mind that Facebook does something very well : it helps facilitate connections and conversations. It helps me get in touch and stay in touch with family, friends and business contacts who wouldn’t otherwise read my blog or relate to me via other online tools. It works really great for friends you don’t see a lot on a daily basis, but still want to stay in touch with. But for all it’s merits, I hate the fact that I can’t easily search and access data in Facebook. I dislike that I can’t extract the information I need with RSS from my Facebook archives, and that I cannot play even further with the category layers, to adapt the service even further to suit my needs.

Let’s imagine that Facebook decides to go open source. Facebook releases it’s source code and invites developers to join in and contribute to the code. They still are leading the development of the core Facebook application, but also offer anyone a downloadable package, which can be freely modified and redistributed. Anyone is free to fork Facebook and set up a rival site.

What would happen then?

First, we’d fix everything that is wrong with it. We’d add RSS feeds to all the places where we’d like RSS feeds. We’d work to make what’s going on transparent, so that we could learn from it. And we’d make those changes publically available to anyone, who’d like to take a look and use them for their own purposes.

But what I think makes Facebook really brilliant as a free software package is the way it can adopt external applications within itself. Facebook as a general purpose communications platform is great and extremely adaptable. This makes it well suited as a platform for almost any corporate website. Most companies need to enable conversations across the organization, with suppliers, customers, investors, and everyone else slightly related to the company. The fact that most companies’ employees already spend a good deal of time using Facebook during work hours shouldn’t lead to abolishing and blocking Facebook from office computers, but should rather be seen as an encouragement to take this brilliant tool and give it a form of their own choosing. If Facebook was released under GPL, that would indeed be a viable option.

Adopting Facebook as a corporate platform would not only allow employees and customers to communicate on equal footing, it would also allow them to create applications for the platform, which would help adapt the package in very particular, employee- and customer-centric ways to suit the company’s purposes. That the package already has proven so scalable on a global level is a testament to it’s robustness in even the most trying of corporate environments.

But even if Facebook is not released under GPL, we’re already well on our way to build, use and sustain software like this, and many businesses do build their own social networking architectures. In fact, many CMS packages which are free software already implement features which mirror the successful features of Facebook and other social networking services. For WordPress, we already have BuddyPress, a prebundled collection of plugins which convert a WordPress installation to a fullblown social networking site.

But businesses and developers will continue to get it wrong, if they do not offer their employees, members and customers the same freedoms by releasing their source code, as they had when they chose to base their solution on free software.

In the long term, the question is, if Facebook and other proprietary businesses will still have a business model, if they do not give up control and release their code? If they do not enable the free adaptability of their software, chances are, with time, we’ll just build our own.

This post is part of the Cluetrain Manifesto 10-year Anniversary Blogging Event organized by Keith McArthur, in which 95 bloggers all write today about one of the 95 theses put forth by The Cluetrain Manifesto 10 years ago.

EDIT : The link to the CluetrainPlus10 PBwiki page works again. Here’s Keith’s latest post about the project.

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The 95 Theses and The Cluetrain Manifesto Anniversary Blogging Event

The Cluetrain Manifesto celebrates it’s 10th year these days. I never read it in it’s entirety, but it’s one of those books that just keep popping up over and over again. It’s written with a clearheaded, crisp and prophetic style, which demands attention, and if you’re the least bit interested in what happened and is happening with the internet, and how it affects our lives and businesses, it’s one of those books you have to read – at some point in your life. It’s freely available on the web, and there’s an anniversary edition coming out next month, so now is a good time, if you’re like me and haven’t already dived into it.

I was recently encouraged to sign up for a blogging event in which 95 bloggers each write a post on the same agreed date, April 28th, about one of the “95 theses” claimed by the book.

The Cluetrain Manifesto’s 95 theses is a clear reference to the 95 theses written by Martin Luther in 1517 and nailed to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church. Luther’s theses led to strong reactions. It gave voice to the discontents with the Catholic chuch, which were felt by high and low and sparked what later became known as the Reformation and several long and bloody European religious wars.

One thing that was key to Luther’s and his co-conspirators’ ability to appeal to and gain widespread support for their cause was the printing press. Invented around 1450 by Johann Gutenberg and others, it helped spread the ideas in pamphlets and books wide and far, with unprecedented speed and reach. The reformators had in the printing press a tool which helped mobilize support for their ideas in a new way. The churches and monasteries with their preachers and preservers of knowledge no longer poessessed the privilege of filtering information for the people. The monopoly was broken.

As much as there are differences between the media revolution in the 15th and 16th century and the electronic media revolution of our times, the reference is not far off. Like the printing press democratized information streams and made ideas accessible to people who otherwise would be prevented from receiving them, so do the digitally networked information economy connect people and offer access to unfiltered information. The exchange of utterings and data takes place on a truly unprecedented global scale, and we don’t know the true implications of what is going on. We are living it. Everywhere, the internet abolishes the filters of publishers, editors, executives, distributors, news reporters, politicians, dictators and others engaged in preparing our filtered digestion of news, entertainment, knowledge and ideas. The monopoly has been broken again.

Let’s just hope the next two hundred years won’t be as bloody as the two hundred years which followed Luther’s theses.

All the 95 theses of The Cluetrain Manifesto can be found here, but I had to pick just one for my Tuesday post. I picked this one :

93. We’re both inside companies and outside them. The boundaries that separate our conversations look like the Berlin Wall today, but they’re really just an annoyance. We know they’re coming down. We’re going to work from both sides to take them down.

Read my post on this thesis here : When The Garden Walls Come Crumbling Down – Or what would happen if Facebook went GPL.

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Twitter fatigue, social networks fatigue

Laura Hale has a great post on the Fan History blog (via Kaplak Stream), which deals with Twitter fatigue. Among other things, she writes :

I really wish that as Twitter exists now, that I felt like I was getting more out of my relationships that use Twitter to facilitate them. They don’t. I’m tired of trying to make the effort while feeling like I should be getting something out of it. I’m tired of people following me for no apparent reason who never communicate with me. I’m tired of the idea that I should be getting more connected with people as I feel even less connected.

I’m tired of the hype. (…) CNN talks about Twitter. FaceBook changed to look more like Twitter. News people talk about how Twitter will change how news is reported. Newspapers print Tweets. Twitter will change the world! Celebrities tweet from everywhere. Entertainment Tonight covers people who are tweeting while they are being interviewed. I get it. This is like MySpace about 2 years ago. (And we know where MySpace is going.) I kind of just want to be left alone in a world where I can use it with out everyone and their neighbor going on about how great it is. If we could get back to reporting the news instead of reporting on how people are sharing their news, I might be less tired.

In my particular case what Laura describes goes a long way to describe the love/hate relationship I have with most proprietary social networks (if in doubt, see this piece on why we don’t really like social networks). It would best be called social networks fatigue in general.

On Twitter in particular, I tire excessively of the countless outright attempts to game the system, of which this is only the latest I’ve bumped into. I like experiments and new ways to approach the Twitter API – but I dislike manipulation and being treated like a fool.

I would maintain that it is possible to use these tools to create and sustain meaningful relations, although like Laura it is probably no more than a handfull or at most a few handfulls which have come out of my personal use of Twitter. I haven’t calculated it rationally in terms of how many hours I’ve put into it, and if I did the numbers probably would not look encouraging.

But I don’t look at it in those terms. I see it more like a big learning experiment which helps me dress myself and others up for whats coming – and what will be _more_ the real thing. More peer-to-peer driven, more sharing, more caring and much more powerful (as in the Wikipedia meaning of the word). More so than say Twitter, Facebook, even Google, which are all young wild proprietary experiments trapped in the “old” economy.

I never forget the wonder of encountering Wikipedia in those early years, in 2003 and 2004. I and a few others worked on the Max Stirner article in the wiki and we built what we thought was a pretty decent encyclopedic article on Stirner. Since then, our work has been completely destroyed, mashed-up and remixed into an obscurity of an enormous and unstructured piece of writing. Great, because our work was not so sacred it couldn’t be demolished, and the lively activity on the article suggests that a lot of people find Stirner’s thinking interesting – which is great. Great, because the friendly environment and cooperative spirit which nurtured and built Wikipedia in those years laid the foundation for a global phenomenon we have yet to fully understand and appreciate. Great, because Wikipedia shocked me. It woke me up! In the Lessig meaning of those words. Sure there are problems. Lots of them. One of these minor quibbles may be, that the article which at present introduces Max Stirner to the uninitiated is not as good as the one we once wrote. But when all comes to all, it is a minor quibble. What shocked me and appeared to me as truly revolutionizing, was the power of people coming together, from different parts of the world, working together towards a meaningful goal, if just an encyclopedic article, we wanted it to be the best article it could be. And this stays with me. A lot of people these days use services such as Facebook and Twitter and marvel at the opportunities of connecting with other people. Most coming in via these online services have not learnt how to connect. They are easy targets for the “make a quick buck”-promoters who will sell their old grandma for +10.000 additional followers on Twitter.

There’s a big job in educating ourselves on how to communicate. The real power of tools like Twitter is not in the meaningless “what are you doing right now”-nonsense (except these may sometimes be good conversation-starters) but in the ability to reach someone beyond far distances, who shares your concern, your problem, your interests. Who may be able to help you. Whom you may be able to help. Not in the “shouting” and “selling your products in the face” way of “helping”. Forget the products. Help because you care. Because you share passionate common interests.

I like when I can see the person behind the connection. “It is the real you I want to see, behind the imagery”, I once described it somewhere. In that context, I spoke about the importance of crafting films with authentic messages and stories which resonate with oneself and one’s audience. But it is no less true when connecting with others using internet tools. To have something important to say, something meaningful to communicate. Something to ask. Something to think about, to be concerned about. A piece of information which makes my life richer, in the deeper sense and not the monetary sense.

We don’t always know what that is, and if we can’t write and post a message without thinking deeply about the deeper meaning of it, we would write and post a lot less. Which may be a good thing, some might say. Something which I repeatedly find very embarrassing myself, is how despite all precautions, you can’t easily hide the less flattering sides of yourself when engaging in online conversations. Some of it doesn’t look very pretty. Misspellings, impatience, frustrations, childish blabbering, pride, just plain rudeness. I’m a big fan of civil online behaviour as I am in civil offline behaviour, but still sometimes things slip out, which are less than flattering, sound a little too blunt than it was meant etc. And it doesn’t all have to be flattering. I’m also a great fan of filtering tools and I hope those who read what I have to say take note and learn how to use these to their great effect. As we’re still only learning how to handle and filter our in/out information streams, the noise levels of our online communication are inevitably rising as we try and deal with the problems of communicating with people in different contexts, on different platforms, and using different kinds of filtering tools.

Those of us who learnt how to communicate and work together building the early articles of Wikipedia, and did it the hard way, by connecting with others and discussing page up and down with complete strangers how best to do it, we’ve got a long way helping the many others coming into this world of online connectedness much less well prepared. And most importantly, whether we use crude (but working) wiki talk pages or sophisticated tools like social messaging or multi-platform microblogging, we need to make our passions shown. To help deliver the shock.

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Google as in “Massive Copyright Infringement”

Torrent index sites like The Pirate Bay are often compared to search engines such as Google in that both offer vast indexes of information, and both give easy access to unauthorized copies of copyrighted material.

One thing which surfaced during the Pirate Bay trial in late February was IFPI’s cooperation with Google and other search services in their battles against copyright infringement. When IFPI’s representative John Kennedy was asked why they sued The Pirate Bay and not Google (as in “or any other major information filtering service using the internet”), the answer was that Google cooperated, and The Pirate Bay didn’t :

When asked about the differences between TPB and Google, Kennedy said there is no comparison. “We talk to Google all the time about preventing piracy. If you go to Google and type in Coldplay you get 40 million results – press stories, legal Coldplay music, review, appraisals of concerts/records. If you go to Pirate Bay you will get less than 1000 results, all of which give you access to illegal music or videos. Unfortunately The Pirate Bay does what it says in its description and its main aim is to make available unauthorized material. It filters fake material, it authorizes, it induces.”

(…) Kennedy was asked why they haven’t sued Google the same way as TPB. He said that Google said they would partner IFPI in fighting piracy and he has a team of 10 people working with Google every day, and if Google hadn’t announced they were a partner, IFPI would have sued them too.

I think the truth of the matter is, that Google’s business is based on copyright infringement from the start. When Brin and Page started Google, they started by downloading the entire internet and offering their index of it online. In the words of Larry Page himself, in David Vise’s The Google Story :

Google was started when Sergey and I were Ph.D. students at Stanford University in computer science, and we didn’t know exactly what we wanted to do. I got this crazy idea that I was going to download the entire Web onto my computer. I told my advisor that it would only take a week. After about a year or so, I had some portion of it.

In order to offer Google’s search of their index to the world, they had to keep all the internet’s content on their own servers, otherwise their results wouldn’t be very fast. Did they ask every single website owner or administrator for permission to use said material? No. Did they need to? No, in fact they couldn’t. That would have been prohibitive for what they were doing. The cost alone of asking would have been prohibitive for what Google was doing, if they even knew themselves, what they were doing.

However, was what they did beneficial to the world? Yes, one may very well say so, to a degree that Google is now a hugely successful business whose operations span the globe and benefit millions, if not billions of people on a daily business. What Google did was transformative, defining of the internet. It defined the web.

What Google added was their filtering index of the web. On their servers, the content of sites were analyzed and ranked according to PageRank, an algorithm which rewards sites which are greatly linked to with a better placement in search results than sites which have generated fewer links.

But for this to work they needed the data to work with. Google has done a lot to give users the impression, than when one is using their core product (search), it appears like one has instant access to all of the World Wide Web. This is a brilliant illusion, but no matter how good it is, one is still only surfing around on Google’s own servers, which store Terabyte after Terabyte of unauthorized copies of copyrighted material. The fact remains, that Google took this data, without asking anyone for permission. Perhaps they didn’t need to, perhaps they didn’t deem it necessary. What Google did was one of the greatest things that could have happened to the web at the time, and what everyone else involved in the search industry was doing. Throwing around data without paying any kind of homage to copyright owners. To the great benefit of everyone of us today, most will say.

What The Pirate Bay and other sites are doing today – is no less transformative. But they’re not cooperating.

What happened since Google introduced their filters to the world was that the “war on piracy” became greatly intensified. Napster and peer-to-peer networks threatened the monopolies of first the record industry, since the Hollywood-based entertainment industry. Google and other services which offer online metadata – i.e. access to “other people’s” information via the internet, got trapped in that battle. Some felt they had to choose sides. And most chose to cooperate with the entertainment industries – over what was right or true or just. Whether this line of business was born out of the pragmatism of doing “business” and avoid expensive law suits or out of a mission to “do no evil” doesn’t matter. Google and likeminded companies will do a lot to cover up the fact that what they are doing is based on massive copyright infringement – including cooperating with IFPI to filter online information – every day. Which in my humble opinion is very creepy.

I say this as a big fan of Google, as a daily user of countless Google products, which I would hate to live without.

It’s a pretty good fraud. Cooperate with IFPI and other copyright holders to only slightly cover up the fact, that the whole thing is based on copying other people’s material. Blur the distinctions to the extent that it even confuses the courts as to what they should believe. What is really the difference between Google and similar search filters and a service such as The Pirate Bay? Both store and provide access to metadata. But while the first stores everything on their own servers, from where they provide access to local sites and material – The Pirate Bay and others employ a superior technology, which offers nothing but hyperlinks directly to material stored on their users’ own machines. So why should The Pirate Bay lose the case which is going on right now in Sweden? Because they do not cooperate. They do not care about anyone’s material. What they’re interested in is developing a new technology to the benefit of all of us. They do what Google did in 1998, except they do not commit any copyright infringement at all.

On a curious note, Google also ranks web sites according to how “unique” their contents are. This means, that if you run an aggregation site, i.e. a site which harvests and provides access to the content of other web sites – just like Google did, and still do – Google assigns you penalty points, and your site will be harder to find using Google’s search. Your site will rank lower, if you do what Google does : copy the content of other websites.

What’s really scary however is the degree to which we rely on proprietary filtering services such as Google’s search, which are influenced by interests we don’t know about. Google presents itself as an almost universally neutral service, which can give us an instant answer to almost every problem we face. The truth is, Google is in fact a highly weighted information filtering service, which is influenced by the special interests of organizations such as IFPI, on no legal grounds except what pleases and what not pleases Google and is completely dependant on their choice to cooperate. We don’t know what other special interests Google chooses to cooperate with, and we have absolutely nothing to say as to whether they do and how they let their search results be influenced by them. I can only conclude, that while a few young people in Sweden are willing to stand up for our freedom of speech (for this is what I consider the “freedom to link” to be) – it is shameful to realize again and again, that the world’s information filtering superpower is not.

In my view there is no other way out of this misery than to create and help build new sets of truly de-centralized information filtering tools and services, which are based on free software, which cannot be influenced, manipulated or dominated by any particular third party. Tools which enable better, faster and more precise connections between someone who wants a message or query out – and those who wish to receive and answer it. We’re still throwing around rocks in our information stone age when playing with proprietary services and tools such as Twitter, YouTube and the many many others we use on a daily basis.

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Twitter Mosaic

Now here’s an inventive business model and value proposition. Create a mosaic of your friends or followers on Twitter and get it printed on your coffee cup, mousepad, T-shirt and living room carpet (this has to be next!). Here’s what Kaplak’s mosaic looks like.

Had some trouble putting it into the post directly, as the original embed code seems to collect all the images for the mosaic live on this site, and the load time apparently makes WordPress not display the post at all. Would be more clever to combine the icons into one big image, and then “image map” all the links to the Twitter profiles. So I created the above image myself – I did not however imagemap links to the Twitter profiles. Instead the above image links to the embed in a separate file.

Also there seem to be some hardcoded limits in place, which prevents me from creating a mosaic which includes _all_ Kaplak’s “friends” on Twitter.

Thanks to Silicon Republic for this tip.

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You can have your ice cream and eat it too!

This previous friday, March 20th, there was supposedly a demonstration taking place in 4 major Danish cities, against the court orders which demand ISP’s to block access for their customers to the Swedish website The Pirate Bay. For the technically savvy, a block which is easy to circumvent, and for the less savvy, easy to find a guide to circumvent using Google or with friends’ help. Still, it is clearly bad if private companies begin to police what websites we can visit and what sites we can’t. It’s not their job. Most ISP’s don’t seem to be too happy about it either, but most also lack the balls to stand up to the ridiculousness of this situation.

What happens next? Once established, that it is okay for ISP’s to block sites at the IFPI’s request, will they ask for stronger blocks? Will they ask for more sites to be blocked? Will they go country by country, using this strategy, until we are blocked out from half the internet, which allows us to find unauthorized copies of copyrighted material?

So, when invited to this demonstration via Facebook I said sure, I’ll come too. I will stand up to what I say and show up, to support an event which was no doubt difficult to get people involved in. On friday, I arrived at the city hall square here in Odense just before the appointed time. And I looked for the young activists, who would soon listen to passionate speeches, storm the barricades and revolt in justified anger. But there were no riots, no armoured policemen behind plastic shields – and no angry young men throwing stones at them. There were no heated speeches or masses of the politically discontent.

Instead, the city square looked like this and this. For a long while there was also a lone guy with a bicycle waiting for someone, and I later learnt this was the keynote speaker, (also) waiting for the demonstration which never came. Of course there were also tourists, old people occasionally crossing the square, people enjoying the sun on the benches with a beer or an ice cream. Like myself :

As it turns out, the political battles of the 21st century are not fought on barricades or with strong political slogans, yelt from city squares where the masses demonstrate their power against villains in office. Instead they are fought on ice cream.

Clay Shirky, writing about Belarus protesters, who used flash mobs in 2006 to show their discontent with the regime :

In May someone posting under the name by_mob used LiveJournal, a piece of blogging software, to propose a flash mob for the fifteenth of that month. (…) the idea was simply that people would show up in Oktyabrskaya Square and eat ice cream. The results were one part ridiculous and three parts depressing; police were waiting in the square and hauled away several of the ice cream eaters, all while being documented in the now-standard pattern as other participants took digital pictures and uploaded them to Flickr, LiveJorunal, and other online outlets. These pictures in turn recirculated by bloggers like Andy Carvin and Ethan Zuckerman, political bloggers who cover the use of technology as a tool for social change. Images of a repressive Belarus thus spread far beyond the borders of Minsk. Nothing says “police state” like detaining kids for eating ice cream. (Here Comes Everybody, p. 166-167)

There were other flash mobs held, one where participants were encouraged to read aloud pieces of banned writers, and another where people were incited to nothing more than “walk around Oktyabrskaya smiling at one another”.

This action produced the same reaction from the state; attendees reported that the police were using the presence of a pocketknife to try one of the smilers with weapons possession.

The police weren’t reacting to the ice cream eating, reading or smiling itself. The chosen behaviour was intentionally innocuous, because the real message lay not in the behaviour but in the collective action.

What is dangerous to the Belarus regime, is the way protesters make it possible for others to know about what is going on. Protesting is an information sharing business. It is about getting your message out, so that more people will know. And if more people know, more will take action to change things. When photos and videos of what’s going on circulate globally, it makes it much more difficult for the people in power to control the message. It creates a shared awareness. Clay Shirky again :

The military often talks about “shared awareness”, which is the ability of many different people and groups to understand a situation, and to understand who else has the same understanding. If I see a fire break out, and I see that you see it as well, we may more easily coordinate our actions – you call 911, I grab a fire extinguisher – than if I have to call your attention to the fire, or if I am in some confusion about how you will react to the a fire. Shared awareness allows otherwise uncoordinated groups to begin to work together more quickly and effectively.

This kind of social awareness has three levels: when everybody knows something, when everybody knows that everybody knows, and when everybody knows that everybody knows that everybody knows. (p. 163)

The battles of the digital frontiers have always been about controlling what message gets out, controlling what story is told. From the “Piracy is theft!” slogans of the Federation Against Software Theft (FAST) in the 1980′es to the law suits of the 1990′es against teenagers for sharing files using the internet. The story told now is one about child pornography, and since we should all condemn and be afraid of that, it’s suddenly okay to call the quits on everything called free speech and make ISP’s block particular web sites. All we need to do is shout “piracy”. No?

A bunch of clever scandinavians claimed back the concept of “piracy” and began to describe themselves as “pirates”. Their torrent index site began to attract the attention of a global pool of users, and with them the attention of global media. And the story began to sound a little different. What had been demonized and called foul names and made people bow their heads in fear for decades now took another meaning. What was previously unthinkable to be uttered aloud in good company, could suddenly mean something else. In fact the meaning attributed by the copyright industries to the concept of piracy is undermined, when ordinary (primarily young) people start using it as something that describe themselves and of which they are proud. It makes it much harder to control the message.

But that doesn’t mean this stops here. I think protest organizers and participants of this struggle need to educate themselves and think deeply about how to organize in new ways, reach each other and create that “shared awareness”, which is necessary for us to act in any coordinated way. It means embracing new services, free software tools, share information effectively with wikis, use social messaging in the Twitter sense, plan and execute flash mobs of the Belarus sort, which create awareness not because there are a lot of people there, but because the images from the happenings reach a lot of people, or reach the right people. It means connecting with others in insightful ways.

So what do I mean by that curious title? It means that digital goods can be copied. Events can be captured and communicated. Among other things, it means we can use digital information more than once, on more different platforms, to reach more different people. It means there are no real limits as to what we can do to create a deeper shared awareness, which makes it easier for say, protesters to recognize each other as protesters on a city square in a town like Odense.

Someone may claim that a video of someone eating ice cream is not real ice cream, it is simply, like Magritte would say, an image of an ice cream. Or in the terms of our times, a copy of an ice cream. Which is true enough. But it can have a great effect, nonetheless.

[UPDATE: 2012-07-02 - fixed and added photolinks]

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The Bumpy Rolling Out of Kaplak Stream – And What Not To Do To Piss Off Google

Kaplak is changing it’s course again. Since the inception of the first kaplak idea, we’ve come a long humbling way to only realize over and over again, how much we still have to learn. But slowly, we also realize what kind of knowhow we have and are building, and how Kaplak can help crack the problems and meet the challenges, which we set out to originally. Hence we also begin to understand what kind of value we add – and just as importantly, what we don’t add. Among many other things, this is key to learn what kind of business model we want to build – and, just as importantly, what kind of business we don’t want.

Let’s take a look at what happened with our traffic since the somewhat bumpy rolling-out of Kaplak Stream in 2008, from November 1st last year to February 1st this year :

The above is a screenshot from the Google Analytics Dashboard for Kaplak.com including subdomains. Following the launch of Kaplak Stream, sometime in November our traffic started to take off. Kaplak Stream basically consists of the present WordPress MU installation of which the Kaplak Blog is also part, along with a handful of customized plugins, of which the most important one is FeedWordPress. The idea (as sketched out in this previous blog post) is that items in the stream can be “fed out” from the stream again, which will reveal new contexts, which didn’t exist before. When two separate items which are both tagged “Barack Obama” are fed from the stream, they create a new “Barack Obama” context, even though the original items may have been produced and published in wildly different contexts.

The first installment of Kaplak Stream came with just about fifteen feeds, of which a handful were submitted by owners of niche websites. Others were feeds from sites such as YouTube, Amazon.com, Twitter (tracking particular subjects or keywords) and Boing Boing. Enough to provide the stream with some variety and “head” which would also test the autotagging performed by Open Calais via a modified version of Dan Grossman’s WordPress plugin.

Kaplak Stream managed to aggregate well over about 15.000 items, i.e. about 1000 items from each feed on average. Grossly more tweets than regular blog posts were aggregated, but posts attracted the greater amount of traffic, given that they worked much better with the autotagging functionality in place. Since they had more text, the tagging tended to be more precise – although some times tags were wildly misleading and out of place. Room for lots of improvement. Most, about 90-95% of all traffic came from search, notably Google. Visitors tended to not stay long, but quickly be on their way again. This could seem to suggest that only few found what they were looking for. However, reports also came in from feed owners, that our traffic managed to produce a meaningful sample of visits on the actual sites aggregated. This was really good news, as it suggests that a sample of our visitors actually found what they were looking for, or was curious enough to click through.

So what pulled the rise in traffic? No subject in particular, but the variety of subjects covered. What attracted users were more often than not pretty obscure pages and topics. For example, top result were the “tag page” for the tag “university-of-illinois-arctic-climate-research-center” with 641 views, and there was absolutely no recoginzable pattern in the rest of the more popular pages reached by visitors. I have not given our sample here substantial analysis, but my guess would be that there would be a neat power law graph, if one dotted in the number of visits to each page in Kaplak Stream and ranked them besides each other. But there is no discernable pattern as to what determined what aggregated items were more popular than others.

While some things seem to work, albeit still just barely, there are also problems. One of these is that apparently something happened on January 26th, which made our traffic drop drastically to before Kaplak Stream levels. Presumably this drop was caused by a Google penalty from duplicate content, which Google have been known to give websites which carry identical content across different domains. While Kaplak’s goals are somewhat aligned with Google’s, although not completely, I’m not unsure the penalty (if there was one) was not “right” in the sense that there were clearly limits to how informative and appropriate the search results which led visitors to our site, were. At least to justify the dramatically beneficial position we gained by aggregating just 15 feeds.

Another problem is the “noise” level, in our tagging, and in the combinations of feed items tagged with similar tags. Tags can be and mostly are very local. A post only remotely connected with a person and a piece which is solely about that person are usually tagged identically. My instinct tells me we need to use automated tools for what they are good for, and let filtering be more in the hands of expert users, in the contexts where it matters.

Clearly, more experiments are needed, and we need much more sustained analysis and methods to analyze our data. All this takes time and costs money. Right now Kaplak has no business model except what we can put into it of our own pockets (meaning mine) – and these are rapidly emptied. This means, for the time being, i.e. for several months now – and several months (and perhaps even years) ahead, I will not be able to work and develop Kaplak on full time. Thanks to the benevolence of our host, we can keep and continue to work on all Kaplak’s sites and projects, but we’ll make some changes which prepares us best to run Kaplak as a part-time operation.

We’ll convert the Kaplak setup to a setup more similar to that of the UMW Edublogs set up by Jim Groom at the University of Mary Washington. Among other things, this means we’ll focus more on building each smaller site in the network, and keep each site focused on it’s subject or theme. We’ll focus more on aggregating what happens within the Kaplak network of sites than what is going on outside the Kaplak WPMU install. We’ll still use aggregation tools to track very particular subjects, keywords and tags, but each different subject will be treated in a site of it’s own, to make things more manageable (it’s a mess cleaning up a large site based on aggregated items). In other words, we’ll run a network of small, very low-maintenance sites, and delay bigger experiments and improvements for a while. Meanwhile, Kaplak Stream will still be able to track tags across all sites and offer feeds from particular tags used in the network.

Reducing the amount of my time which goes into actual development of Kaplak also means I can focus better at building a new constellation of ressourceful people and (real) investors, which we will need to come back stronger with a revived Kaplak at a later time. This is what I hope to achieve, while I work simultanously on other things, making a living.

However, there is also a risk, that we don’t. That our ways may go in other directions. This is not necessarily all bad. See this video with Tim O’Reilly in a previous post to see why. I will try very hard to keep an open mind and attitude and not get stuck in ideas I ought better to leave behind. That said, I can’t see any companies or services which presently really cracks the problems we set out to – and this means we still need to fill that space, one way or the other. And more than anything, I can’t stay away.

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The Scary Part of Risking Yourself on the Web

Satheesh Kumar, developer of the Yet Another Autoblogger plugin recently wrote this post on the difficulties of conveying your enthusiasm for blogging to others around you. I can relate a lot to Satheesh’s experience, as he describes it here :

I have made a lot of fruitless attempts to bring them to the world of blogging. I have offered them free blog resources, free themes, add-ons etc. But no one was interested.

I found that my school has a high page rank .gov.in website kept useless with only a few HTML files. I have asked the principal to set up blog hosting and offer free blogs to the students. It will not only develop their communication skills but inculcate a new culture in them. I have offered all helps. But none was interested ( both students, teachers, and the administration )

I have asked a lot of senior doctors with good practice and knowledge to start blogs in their favourite topics. Most of them said some unclear reasons for not blogging. One of these senior guys ( he was my teacher too ) said ” I knows how to send emails and to use orkut, but I haven’t entered complex things like blogging.” !!

I tried a lot to confess him that its simple like email and Orkut. I clarified that he can publish a blog by just sending an email to a secret email id. But no one was interested !!!

Resistance to new technology, new services and new ways of thinking is natural. We are all animals of habit, who hate unneccessary disturbances and like rhytms, customs and habits, which we have become accustomed to. It’s easy to perceive of the internet or particular phenomena related to the internet as threats best to be avoided.

On a personal level, one reason blogging is scary is because you put yourself on the line. If you write something and put it out for public consumption, you risk looking stupid, ignorant or otherwise become exposed. Most people don’t like to be exposed. They like to hide. They like to let others go first, so that they can watch from a distance and enter the new domain, once it’s been defined and secured by others.

But does this do it for the internet? I doubt there is or will be such a thing as a defined and secure internet. You have to risk it. You have to expose yourself. There’s no going away, no hiding behind others. Because the internet is about meeting other people. Some of these you already know, others you enjoy more distant relations with, and yet others you have yet to meet. You can’t hide if you want to connect with someone. It is the real you, you want to show, if you want to be taken seriously. And it is the real you, others want to connect with.

At least if you want to yield the power of this new space and learn to embrace new ways of thinking, working and communicating, you have to risk yourself, like Satheesh, myself and millions of other bloggers, twitterers, wiki editors, and other participants of the digitally networked information economy.

There’s a slight danger that the prejudices and fears about online activities such as blogs, twittering or wikis will widen the gulf between people who resist new technology and those of us who are rapidly getting sucked in and fast learning new ways.

On the other hand, I’m hoping we can do a lot to attract others to “jump in”, even though it’s uphill a long way. I find Facebook is a good place to start, so I use every opportunity to post links there for my blogposts, and to crosspost tweets to Facebook as well, in order to make people in my network curious about what’s going on in other places. Curiosity is king, I hope. But ultimately, I want people I know to leave the confines and false safety of Facebook and enjoy the full range of opportunities available to them, once they learn to embrace them. Because this, I feel, will empower them. They can be the ones who define who they are in this space, and what they’ll use this new space for.

Ultimately, resistance is futile. However, there’s nothing to be scared of. How could there be?

We’re not going to be senseless web junkies. To the contrary, what is happening is an awakening, an image often invoked by Lawrence Lessig, like in this great, thoughtful article on Lessigs talk in Dona in Qatar in 2007. We’re in the process of extending our methods and communication on a truly global scene and unprecedented scale. There are grand shifts in power taking place right now – from those who rely on the tested and tried methods and institutions of yesterday, and those who embrace and develop new methods and institutions, rooted in use of new technology and new social opportunities which arise from the clever use of new technologies. The order of the political landscape is changing. And it is changed by you and me.

Then again, this is really scary to a lot of people, especially if you insist on your old ways in spite of what’s going on. This is scary, if you do not feel anything in your heart. If you have become so accustomed to living by another man’s rules and definitions of the world. If you are not curious to learn about the world. If you’ve got enough in yourself and do not want to embrace other people. But I can’t believe that is really the case.

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When Words Are Not Enough

The web is awash with shocking images – terrible, shocking images of dead children. Of what is happening in Gaza, right now. I don’t care about the political mumbo-jumbo, it doesn’t interest me. But I do care about what other people are doing to each other. What crimes can be committed when people sign off their responsibilities towards their fellow men and replace it with loyalty and servitude to false concepts, institutions and leaders, which cowardly hide behind the rhetorics of concepts and words.

A friend sent me these pictures on Facebook – similar pictures can be found all over the web. Here, here or here. Here. Or simply here.

There were a few which spoke to me deeply. A father (I assume) carrying his dead child away. A kid with his head just above the ground. Corpses of burned children. I am a father myself. It doesn’t take much empathy to understand what kind of unspeakable atrocity is committed here. I have little to say in words except it makes me sad – and furious at the same time. I blip’ed about it here, and that’s just one insufficient way to express how I feel. Words are insufficient.

I try to avoid watching the news. I don’t really like to be spun into the web of politics and juggling of concepts which is what’s going on in television-made reality. I like the internet, where I can obtain the information I need when and where I like. A friend can always share news with me, in many different ways, if he or she deems it important for me to know. Or I can stumble upon things, I wouldn’t otherwise know about. I can be reached.

Today, these images made me think about how images like these can now reach us in a way they couldn’t a mere 10-15 years ago. They’d never make it past the editorial room of the television news, never make it into prime time tv (for good reasons). But they tell the unmasked truth of whats going on. Killed children, dead babies, smashed families… what goes on in every war, no matter how pretty or political it looks on tv. And what needs to reach us and anyone else with influence and just the slightest sense of responsibility. This can’t go on in the 21st century.

I can’t help the feeling that all my work and interests are shallow, when faced with these atrocities. This goes for my work in Kaplak, as well as my hobbies, such as playing strategy games and developing computer game scenarios.

That’s until I remind myself, that the reason I do what I do, is to facilitate this kind of exchange of information. I am reminded of Clay Shirky’s ideas, of what creates a group, and what makes group action possible : shared information, and a platform for interaction. That we develop technological architectures, which enable the decentralized access to and distribution of information, which may operate fast, can easily be used and adapted, and which enable mutual connections between otherwise disconnected entities. Now we have wikis, the blogosphere and we have Twitter. But we need even better tools to facilitate these exchanges of information, and in order to coordinate advanced and complex operations between peers. This is what we do. This is what we’re taking our first few digs into.

I recently blip’ed about the German patriotic song Die Wacht am Rhein, a song which has roots in the Prussian expansion wars of Bismarck 1864-1871, which was also immensely popular in Germany during the two world wars. I want to create a Civilization II scenario on Bismarck’s wars and this forging of the German national state. As a way to explore this our in many ways most recent history, on the birth of the modern European national state – on the iron, technology and blood spilt in this process. The kind of history taking place right now in Gaza is not new. These kinds of atrocities are not new. But gone are the days of romanticizing war and dressing it up as patriotism. Gone are the days when images such as these could be kept away from the public eye. And come are the days, when atrocities in one distant corner of the globe can reach the rest of the globe with the speed of fiery lightning. And hopefully, it will make an act such as this much harder to enact without the world acting against it. If we don’t, it could be our children, there, dead in the ruins. In a way it is.

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Free Software And Proprietary Dead-ends

Stumbled over this interesting discussion about WordPress “premium” plugins and themes, i.e. plugins or themes which are sold at a price, just like any other piece of proprietary software. WordPress Premium Themes have been around for a while, and they recently spawned quite a discussion on the WP-hackers mailing list, when over 200 themes was removed from the WordPress.com selection of themes.

The focus of the discussion is the Free Software Foundation’s General Public License (GPL), and whether plugins or themes based on a GPL’ed piece of software such as WordPress can be sold for profit.

There are several voices in this broad discussion, and to characterize some of the perspectives :

  • Commercial developers and start-ups, who need a way to make a living from what they do : create WordPress plugins and themes
  • WordPress users who demand more features and ever more clever ways to personalize and customize the software they use
  • Open source developers who feel cheated when what they’ve spent hours and hours developing is “sold” by others
  • Purists who feel that since WordPress is free (GPL’ed as well as free of charge) every component based on or rooted in WordPress ought also to be free
  • Pragmatics who tend to say that as long as the GPL is respected, developers may do anything with the code, and that plugins which are developed from scratch are not necessarily born GPL’ed

I think this is a crucial discussion for the future of open source and “free” software.

As far as my understanding of the GPL goes there’s nothing wrong with redistributing GPL’ed software, in fact this is the point of the license. The only condition is the software remains licensed under GPL or a similar license. That receivers in your end receive the same benefits that you had, is a key component of what is usually referred to as copyleft.

There’s nothing wrong with charging money for the redistribution of this code either. Noone says anybody should provide stuff for free, just because it is GPL’ed “free” software. What the freedom in “free software” means is that anyone who obtains the code also remains at liberty to redistribute the GPL’ed code and charge for it too, if he or she wishes to do so. We all have expenses, and there are all kinds of good reasons to ask money for the time and work we put into providing a service or a product to someone else.

The tricky thing is, that since users who buy a piece of GPL’ed software also has the full right to redistribute that software, the business model appears to be broken. It may not actually be broken, since there are many good reasons to pay to receive benefits with the software “purchased”. Someone who obtains a piece of GPL’ed software via a bittorrent network, won’t get the support and imminent future updates that someone who “bought” the software from the developer does. But if we toss this aside, that the business model appears broken is probably what leads some developers to pursue proprietary business models.

Now, there’s a perfect match between supply and demand in the users who wants new features and are willing to pay for them too, and the developers ready to supply new features. It appears pretty straightforward. It’s good for users and it’s good for developers, who make a living from what they do. Right? Wrong.

The advantage of using GPL or any other copyleft strategy is that the process of redistribution and refinement can easily be facilitated. If or when a useful feature is included in a version of the code, it can be adopted by the source developer or anybody else involved, so that everybody gains, whether they charge for it to others or not. It can facilitate the creation of a community around “the project”. The software is improved by community developers, and eventually the code or project may leverage much more than any individual developer is capable of.

If you use a proprietary model as a developer you’re shutting others out. As a proprietary developer you have to build your entire organization around the fact that all problems must be solved in-house or paid for. You’re in the business of constructing a costly operation, which must be paid for. In contrast, the free software developer may not have a great income from his work (someone in the linked discussion said he had received 50$ in donations at 20.000 downloads), but also has few expenses and obligations. Once a website has been set up, he can begin to facilitate the distribution and development of his project because it is GPL’ed. This of course doesn’t do it alone, but if it isn’t out there, it won’t be used and improved upon (for free) at all. If an open source developer has 20.000 downloads, it means his work is popular and things are working out. He ought to wake up and find a way to leverage all that traffic and interest to create even better software, which will attract even more users and reach even greater markets. I find open source developers are typically not very good at this, and there are no easy recipes for how to make it work.

My point is, however, that even while it may not seem so at the surface level, you’re in a much worse position as a proprietary developer, than the open source and free software hobbyist, who is capable of inviting global input and value to his work by using the GPL and has very few expenses doing so.

Now, what about the user? At a first glance, users get what they want, a theme or plugin of their choice and style. But the price they pay is not simply the money changing hands. They also become dependant on a company or a particular developer to provide for them the code and support they want. If the user becomes dissatisfied with the company’s service or the company goes bankrupt, or if the developer decides to go his own way leaving the product and it’s users behind, few will relate enough to the product to be able to pick up where he left. If a piece of code has had 20.000 downloads globally, it becomes a lot easier to find someone, for whom this piece of work is not just a strange mess. But it is also possible, for a user who can’t find somebody to help him, to dive into the code himself and learn to solve problems and create new features, and then redistribute his work.

I’m really great with developers selling their work, but I believe they’re shooting themselves in their feet, if they use GPL’ed software in the first place as a platform or market, and then do not use the powerful legal tools at their disposal in the GPL and other free licenses, to leverage the reach and further refinement of what they do. And I believe users who are too impatient with open source communities and hobbyist free software developers and pay for themes and plugins help trap themselves and their developers in closed circles, which will lead them nowhere while the open communities grow stronger. There’s a real danger however, that great developer talent will wind up in these kinds of dead-end relationships, which doesn’t expose their projects to the open scrutiny of global free software communities. There’s also a real danger that open source software projects won’t spawn the businesses and startups they need, in order to create thriving communities and cultivate collaborative efforts to create even better architectures for facilitating the development of great free software. This may happen if developers and startups decline from using the GPL or other copyleft strategies, out of the misunderstanding and fear that they can’t make money on something which is “free”.

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