Is Seth Godin Polluting A Powerful Space – Or Building A Tribe?

Seth Godin writes on the trap of social media :

If we put a number on it, people will try to make the number go up.

Now that everyone is a marketer, many people are looking for a louder megaphone, a chance to talk about their work, their career, their product… and social media looks like the ideal soapbox, a free opportunity to shout to the masses.

But first, we’re told to make that number go up. Increase the number of fans, friends and followers, so your shouts will be heard. (…)

This looks like winning (the numbers are going up!), but it’s actually a double-edged form of losing. First, you’re polluting a powerful space, turning signals into noise and bringing down the level of discourse for everyone. And second, you’re wasting your time when you could be building a tribe instead, could be earning permission, could be creating a channel where your voice is actually welcomed.

Leadership (even idea leadership) scares many people, because it requires you to own your words, to do work that matters. The alternative is to be a junk dealer.

The game theory pushes us into one of two directions: either be better at pump and dump than anyone else, get your numbers into the millions, outmass those that choose to use mass and always dance at the edge of spam (in which the number of those you offend or turn off forever keep increasing), or

Relentlessly focus. Prune your message and your list and build a reputation that’s worth owning and an audience that cares.

So, what I wondered when reading this, is this : is Seth Godin himself “polluting a powerful space” – or “building a tribe”? Who are cases of one or the other? What category does a Guy Kawasaki or Robert Scoble fall into? What case was Barack Obama’s use of social media? What case is Seth Godin?

I would have liked to ask Seth this on his blog, but his blog doesn’t allow comments, which I find smart, because it provokes me to write an entire blog post instead while I link back to his article, but somewhat paradoxical for someone who wants to build context, which is what I presume Seth Godin wants – and not as smart as allowing comments, which shows the ability and capability to listen as well as to “shout”.

It’s not that I am in complete disagreement with what Seth writes in the above, but I believe there is a bit more to the case. There is a thin thin line between ‘polluting a powerful space’ and ‘relentlessly focus’. Largely they depend on who is on the receiving end, what they expect from you and what they are looking for. And I do not see that they are so easily identifiable, except you know when there is a signal, and when there is noise. Thankfully, we all have the power to turn off noise and filter our incoming information streams ourselves. Increasingly, we rely less on the editorial filters of others, although we do rely a lot (too much, IMHO) on the information architectures built by others (especially when using social networks such as Facebook or Google+). The web that you describe and hope for, where we can focus relentlessly, is the same I want – but right now numbers are rewarded, and numbers are what makes the web (or large parts of it) a frantic race for PageRank, clicks and impressions. SEO, linkspam, noise, waste of time and waste of eyeballs. Lots of it comes from design faults of this space, which we can work to eradicate and improve upon. More so, than from the noise of any particular noisy individual ‘polluting’ our much-agreed-upon intensely ‘powerful space’.

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The World of the Yeltsins

I have not had the slightest piece of time, opportunity or reason this last year to revive the Kaplak Blog – or the Kaplak Log, as I think I’ll soon rename it – until now.

For one thing, Kaplak doesn’t exist as a proper company any longer, and for another I have a new job and position as a teacher of history and media. I’ve had my hands full, and I’ve still got a lot of new things to learn.

And there’s the thing, that in a company blog like this, every post always seemed like it was building up expectations for the next, even longer and more insightful piece, and it became impossible to live up to. Eventually the blog simply lost it’s pace, along with the energy and ideas which went down with the company and it’s troubled work relationships.

Yet, I have never quite stopped thinking about the problems that we worked to solve in Kaplak. If I have, it has been only briefly and because I’ve been preoccupied with other thoughts and work. But I’ve watched and used the web and tools of the web just as intensively in my new position, yet with the major difference that I no longer has to study them, just because I have to find a way to make a living out of them. I use and study them because I find them interesting, and actually find myself in the position of someone looking for obscure niche products (such as documentary films, for instance). And I’ve realized over the past year, that we’re nowhere near solutions to the problems we set out to solve – connecting products on the slim end of the long tail with their distant markets.

And this in spite of the widespread use of Twitter and Facebook, the improvements and new products of Google (Google Wave being the most interesting), lots of affiliate networks and business models (Amazon’s model still in a prominent position), experiments with paying web contributors (Knol, Mahalo, Squidoo and others). In many ways, the web seems a lot more like in a standstill today than when we started out with Kaplak in 2007. Or when I first started out working with the web in 2003 and 2004. Back then Wikipedia was still a young experiment, and YouTube was a daring startup, not yet consolidated by Google. Peer-to-peer services were alive and well – and bittorrent was looking very promising. It still is promising, but has failed to expand into popular use, despite the efforts of startups such as Bittorrent.com and Joost (which was never a true p2p service, after all) and lots of free publicity for services such as The Pirate Bay. And despite the widespread sharing practices on services such as Facebook. Facebook never became a great place for sharing torrents, as the company was very quick to ban and remove users’ links to torrent sites such as The Pirate Bay. Lots of startups have died trying, and Google and Facebook looks even more dominating in the webspace today than 5 years ago.

Noone talks much (or just as energetically) about Chris Anderson’s ideas about ‘the long tail’ as many did just a few years ago, yet I still see the same opportunities in it for transcending core aspects of western, industrial society. While the economics (one can earn more in the tail than in the head) may or may not be true for particular types of businesses and product categories, the long tail helps demonstrate (and helped demonstrate at the time), that there is much more out there today than previously, and that there is a demand for it (however slight). Whether a business model is feasible in the long tail (with or without the head to support it), however, remains, in my humble opinion, a matter of finding the right business model and cutting costs appropriately. The vital component of both these priorities is an architecture which supports them, i.e. makes products accessible to their precise markets at the right time, and at very low cost. Now, what makes this difficult is that one has to build such an architecture in a totally convergent and converging field, where concepts such as producer, product and ownership to information changes rapidly.

Connecting niche producers and niche markets much more precisely and efficiently might and would transcend our dependencies on time – just as the industrial revolution transcended our dependencies on land to our present dependencies on time. The last turned out to be a much more flexible arrangement for western societies. The workforce was no longer tied to the land, but could earn their livelihoods manning the machines. No longer could one harvest and produce only in one season of the year, production could be kept up, as long as there were hours in the day, energy provided by steam engines and electricity and a sufficiently large workforce to man the machines. Welcome to the world of economic growth as we know it.

Now, what we can do, and what we have the technology to do, is loosen our dependencies on time. We already do it, we already have it. We can work everywhere, thanks to wireless networks, we can meet and arrange to meet each other up until the last minute, thanks to mobile phones. We can keep ourselves informed and filter our incoming information streams, thanks to RSS and services such as Twitter or Google Reader, and countless other web services. We can construct our own information architectures, in our own webspaces, using free software such as WordPress and MediaWiki. We can sell our own homegrown products with everything from eBay to osCommerce. We can buy home-delivered groceries over the net, which meets our needs precisely. We can produce and sell our own soap and beer thanks to recipes found online and our own experiments. We can write, print and sell books-on-demand, more cheaply than ever, without the wasteful mass printing of big publishing houses. We don’t have to rely on schedules, workhours, heftily regulated industrial workplaces – and we don’t have to rely on the editorial filters of others.

But, and there’s a big but, many of our laws, courts and workplaces still not recognize what’s going on. Our lives and businesses are regulated nationally, even though we operate nascently internationally via the internet. We predominantly receive our salaries dependent on how much time we spend doing something, or based on how high up in the command-chain we are – not so much dependent on how useful it is what we do. We pay taxes to local institutions and obey local laws, despite the fact that the problems we have to deal with are increasingly of a global nature, from terrorism (which is, in this context, a very small problem) to the threat of environmental disasters. We may add information to radically open and globally reaching information systems such as wikis, yet our educational systems (broadly speaking) are hopelessly medieval in their narrow focus on classes, professors and courses.

The final blow will come the day, if/when the ‘old’ economic system breaks. I’m not sure the present crisis is just it – I expect a transition to a ‘new’ economic system to take longer and be more painful. There may not even be a ‘visible break’. If you can’t see or feel it now, I wonder if you will at a later stage. Many of these changes are not clearly documented or reported by our mass media-based news system, and our networks-based information filtering still needs a lot of work – it is still polluted by much noise.

The question is how deep these changes will go politically? Can our political institutions handle radically big transitions of our economies and property-based systems? One area is patents and copyright, for example. Can our political parties and institutions reform this? Is it possible? A lot of things leaves the impression it isn’t possible, yet some of us has to insist that it is. If it isn’t possible, p2p will be driven underground, reserved as an outlet for the few privileged, who knows how to circumvent the official pathways. If it is, what new institutions may emerge from the battlefield, what new types of infrastructure will we need, and what should they be like?

Lawrence Lessig once referred to himself as the ‘Gorbachev of this movement’, in the sense that he didn’t want to tear down the copyright system, but to reform it. But here we are, and even Lessig’s own talks are taken down from YouTube because of alleged copyright infringement.

It seems to me that this is much more the world of the Jeltsins. Of a web that consolidates itself into major players, which are not as intent to empower their users, as they are intent to profit themselves and keep the industrial system in place.

The reason I write this post is I still see opportunities to revive Kaplak, not as a company, but as an idea and set of ideas which can still be worked with and developed upon to build better tools, which can help take a crack at our original problem : connecting products and markets on the slim end of the long tail. But it is even clearer to me today that this battle is also political. It cannot be fought without taking a political stand. It can’t be reduced to just business or just a company. It has to have a wider scope. I will keep this blog a space to explore this further – the construction of concrete tools and information architectures as well as the politics.

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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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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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Lessig, the Abolition Movement and the Wicked Problems We Face

Stumbled over this very thoughtful interview by Charlie Rose with Stanford professor, Creative Commons founder, copyright reformer and Change Congress-initiator Lawrence Lessig (via Lessig’s Blog) :

Lessig has some very interesting remarks re: his meeting with Barack Obama years ago, where Lessig encouraged Obama to seek public office. According to Lessig, Obama responded, “you know, Larry, guys like me don’t make it in public service like that”. Obama presumably felt politics would demand too great compromise, than he felt he was able to give. Seems like he changed his mind. Here’s fingers crossed he’ll have some success in changing that game.

On another interesting note, Rose asks Lessig if he has any concerns in regard to filesharing and what’s happening in ‘free culture’, if he’s to take the perspective of ‘the other side’, i.e. the entertainment industry and MPAA intellectual property lobbyists. His answer is thoughtful and enlightening. Lessig fears, he says, the extent to which the reactionary and draconian IP legislation has created such resistance to copyright law, that the new generation – or a substantial segment of the new generation, will simply abolish copyright law altogether – just get rid of it :

Lessig : I think there is a real risk, because of the growing – I think of it as a kind of abolitionist movement with copyright. People who think that copyright was a great system for the 20th century, but we just need to get rid of it now. It’s not doing any good now, it’s not necessary, let’s just abolish it. Well, I am not an abolitionist. I believe copyright is essential in the digital age. I think we have to find a way to make it sensible in the digital age, but we have a richer, more diverse culture with it than we would without it. But my real fear is that the last ten years has unleashed a kind of revolutionary attitude among the generation that will take over in ten years and it’ll be hard for them to distinguish between sensible copyright legislation and the kind that we’ve got right now. So my real fear is we’re gonna lose control of this animal. Not in the sense, that we’re trying to guide it, but in the sense that we’re creating an environment where we can really have rich, diverse culture. So in this sense I feel like I’m Gorbachyov, not Yeltsin, I’m like an old communist who’s just trying to preserve..

Rose : (laughs) – who’s not gonna let go of everything…

Lessig : Yes exactly right. They just wanted to reform it, to make it make sense.

Rose : But can you do that, I mean?

Lessig : Gorbachyov couldn’t. So I don’t know. But that’s what I’m afraid of. I’m afraid we’re gonna destroy something important. Because the thing copyright does, when it works well, is it’s very democratic. It gives the artist an independent ability to create. He doesn’t have to worry about his patron, supporting his kind of creativity. He can create on his own. And he creates on his own, and he owns what he creates.

Lessig emphasizes the importance of businesses to understand, harness and protect creative communities, like a Yahoo does in ‘securing’ the community of Flickr and the built-in ability of that community to use Creative Commons licensing of their images, or a Google does in similar ways with Picasa.

However, on this occasion as on others Lessig fails to enlighten us on what good copyright does us, when businesses vigorously seek to uphold IP rights in software. Google may harness the creative community of Picasa and enable free licensing within their software and as long as it provides value to their business, but what about the rights of Googlers, whose entire creative work by contract ends up being owned by Google, not by themselves? What good does it do us as a society, that companies benignly builds in free licensing, if, when and where they choose to do so, but seek to uphold IP barriers for users to change the actual software they use daily and operate on their own machines? Does that make us more free as a society, or less free? Does it give us a more diverse or less diverse culture?

Wouldn’t it be better, for transparency, for competition, for our culture of understanding and sharing; for our die hard focus on what’s really at stake; the big problems and big challenges we face as a global community : poverty, disease, pollution and international, armed conflict – to abolish a system, which systematically gets in the way of solving problems we face and which we need to solve? Which systematically gets in the way of enabling us to work together to help share information to crack the hard problems facing all of us? In what way is it democratic for a western author to deny the unauthorized distribution of his audiobook in a third-world country? In what ways do the distribution of Lord of the Rings (itself based on another work of fiction) via p2p networks harm anyone in this culture or another?

Lessig have always been careful not to associate himself with the pro-piracy movement. In 2006 a very nervous Morten Blaabjerg met briefly with Lessig to conduct an interview for a film project. Lessig was then visiting Denmark on the occasion of the official launch of the set of Danish-context adapted Creative Commons licenses.

Among the things I asked Lessig about in this interview was his attitude to what was then happening in Sweden, the police raid on the Pirate Bay. Lessig responded :

The Pirate Party and the people behind it are extraordinarily sophisticated, and this most recent post, a speech at the Reboot conference, called The Grey Commons, is an extremely sophisticated analysis of the problems.

In America, in my view, it’s counterproductive to encourage something called quote ‘piracy’. And the reason it’s counterproductive, is that if that’s what you push, then people stop listening to your argument, because they think that it’s all about, you just wanna be able to get something for free. And, if they stop thinking about the argument, then we’re not gonna make any real progress. So in America, I think this would be a bad strategy, and in fact, I’ve come to regret my role in certain lawsuits, that have gone to the supreme court, defending the right of peer-to-peer filesharing. Not because I don’t believe in the right of peer-to-peer filesharing, but because, as a strategic or even tactical move, focusing on that activity causes more confusion, than it causes understanding.

Now it could be, certainly could be different in Sweden and in Denmark.

There’s a long way from Lessig’s warning to ‘talk of piracy’ as a ‘bad strategic move’ to his talking with Charlie Rose about an ‘abolitionist movement’. This goes to say a lot about what has happened during the last 2-4 years. Use of bittorrent has been and is rapidly expanding, some of this no doubt due to the publicity surrounding the Pirate Bay. What’s more important, IMHO, is that social networking have become near mainstream, as a recent local television story about Facebook, in which I participated, made totally clear. Apparently, the popularity of Facebook among the +45 years old is a lot greater than people usually think. The sharing practices of these social networks have made copyright concerns a lot less practical. If I want to share photos with my friends, why bother thinking about copyright? Why bother about what they do with those photos? Why protect us against who they’re going to show them to, if they will make money on it or not, or whatever protectionist concern there may be. If you put it out there, it’s beyond you and your control. With or without copyright. It hardly makes any difference, as the ability of law enforcement to actually crack down on these sharing practices, is inefficient and good for nothing.

The only problem remains that services, such as Facebook or Google, seek to retain all rights to their users’ activities and information. This creates great problems for users, if they wish to ‘take out’ information and use it elsewhere. The loss of freedom lies not in the architecture, but the inability to help change those architectures, so that users may take their data where they’d like to go, in what ways they’d like to do so. To create a free and culturally diverse online environment, we need not protect ourselves from the use of ‘our data’, but from the entrapment of ‘our data’ in systems beyond our control. We can wait until doomsday for such companies to embrace the GPL. It’s not likely to happen. Our focus should not be the data, on ‘works of art’ – it should be on the systems which enable us to transport data, enable us to work together, share information and solve problems. Right now IP is used to prohibit or make this harder, as it is used to protect software and software companies and their incumbent business models – not the creativity of individual ‘artists’. This is why it is enlightening to read about the open source business strategies of companies such as Sun Microsystems and others. There are other ways to go. Abolition or not-abolition is not really the question. It doesn’t really matter, in so far as just discussing it doesn’t improve our architectures of communication or our problem solving capabilities. Embracing free software now does. Embracing Wikipedia now does. Embracing copyleft licensing does. Embracing tools of sharing, aggregation and open publishing does. Showing the effects of what you do does. Theory doesn’t. Fighting over legal matters doesn’t. Arguing back and forth about abolition of copyright with someone somewhere who doesn’t understand what you’re talking about (and doesn’t care to either) doesn’t.

P2p filesharing is the hope that we can create and maintain architectures of data transportation beyond centralized control. That we can reach out on our own, to reach others and understand each other. That other someone chose to share that particular movie, book or piece of software with us, which might or might not otherwise have reached us via different channels. That particular movie, book or software today – tomorrow something else of great importance. The channels of distribution are not really that interesting, except if your business model depends on measuring numbers of eyeballs, so that you may cash in on the commercials broadcast to these numbers of eyeballs. That’s what seems to be the concern of IP holders. Not to harness creativity, not to nurture a rich, diverse cultural landscape, but to protect incumbent business models, which stands in the way of creating and improving our decentralized methods of data and information sharing.

What’s interesting and what’s at stake is far more important than creating a culturally diverse environment : it’s about saving lives, about enabling us to live together peacefully and take a deep look at the world we’re in and imagine, what kind of place this could be, if we treated it with the same kind of generosity, as it treats us with.

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Why We Don’t Really Like Social Networks


I’ve sometimes experienced people who won’t accept invitations to connect with me on social networking sites such as LinkedIn or Facebook. Sometimes because they don’t know me or believe they don’t know me. “Knowing someone” is an extremely relative concept with the advent of the internet, though I can also see the grounds on which LinkedIn would want to hold on to this concept.

In other cases, people are afraid they may get spammed or get tricked into spending lots and lots of precious time on meaningless online jabbering and “click this to see who’s on your page” kind of stuff. Others, like my friend the science fiction writer Palle Juul Holm, simply hates what he calls the “americanized categories” of LinkedIn which doesn’t even allow “retired” or “literature” as categories.

To tell you the truth, I hate this too. I hate and dislike fixed categories, because they shape people’s minds in bad ways. In fact, I hate social networks. Social relations there are rarely true and meaningful relations, and I don’t want to waste my time installing useless applications which waste other people’s time. I hate to waste my time on useless crap. I like quality and I like meaningful conversations.

Yet I am a member of more than a handful social networks, and will add a lot more as we go along in Kaplak. Why? I’ll tell you why in a minute.

I have and have always had great contempt for people, institutions or societies which seek to enslave people. Be it slaves to certain kings or rulers, or slaves to certain ideas or modes of thought. The worst idea is probably the habit of believing that one can do no difference in one’s life, which one grows into, when one is not free. “The slave is not free, as long as he considers himself a slave”, to paraphrase one of my heroes, the German philosopher Max Stirner.

I believe people grow, create and live their lives best as free, empowered individuals, and that the world will be a greater place to be when as many people can be and can do so. I believe people who are free, and free to seek and find information, will be wiser people.

One of my greatest passions is tools and services, which empower individuals to create their own online architectures. Because using and building our own tools (i.e. free software) is what makes us free, knowledgeable and capable of change. With free software, i.e. software which can be freely distributed and tinkered with, we can modify the online as well as the offline digital architectures we use ourselves.

This is why I love wikis, why I love decentralized structures and p2p-based architectures, which empower individual members to exercise their influence, bandwidth, harddrive spaces and every bit and byte of their communicative and hacking capabilities to mold what they use so that it fits their needs.

The antithesis to this, of course is any “system”, which create architectures, that cannot be changed by it’s individual users. Systems which are the fruits of what Richard Stallman (visit Stallman’s personal website here) with disdain and contempt in his voice calls “proprietary software”. Facebook and LinkedIn are prime cases of such enormous systems, which are based on fixed categories and variables, which cannot be modified by users. Within this system, of course, there are lots of things which can be modified, but only after you accept the premises of say Facebook’s view of the world, which is “users”, “friends”, “pages”, “groups”, “walls”, “applications” and so on. One cannot break up and shape the architecture itself.

These systems are clearly bad, IMO, for our freedoms and capabilities of building our own architectures.

Why do I support and encourage the use of these systems then? Why do I invite others to take part in services such as these? One very important reason is that we can’t do anything, unless we’re connected. And as long as any platform gives me the opportunity to reach out and connect with others – most importantly those I want to know and who wants to know me, but don’t know about me – I will use it, as long as it’s free and doesn’t give me headaches. As long as it gives others an opportunity to reach out and communicate back, it’s a tool we may be able to use in our broader scope of things to come. It’s a tool for connecting, so that we may share and shape those much deeper and meaningful conversations – which will form more durable relations, which are beneficial to us in the long term. Which may help us break down the walls and empower more people to create their own architectures.

If we can, for instance, use the Facebook platform to promote Kaplak’s widgets and allow our users to sell products there, we’ll do it with this perspective in mind. We have a focus beyond the categories of “knowing someone” or being someone’s “friend” on social networks, which is crucial to what we do in Kaplak. It is not just about “selling things” and making money, when we try to expand on social networks. We do not dislike money or earning them, but as a company we want to add real value. Our primary capital for doing this is durable connections and ressourceful people, not money or “friends” on Facebook.

If this post resonates with you, we’d like to invite you to join our new Kaplak group on Linkedin, or alternatively, to ‘become a fan’ or group member of our Facebook group. Not just as a number in our friend count, but as someone capable of speaking back, here, there or in other contexts or platforms of your preference and choosing. As always, you’ll find us on Twitter and del.icio.us, among other places :-)

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Kaplak’s Online Strategy

If you’re reading this, you belong to a select group of people who have managed to find their way along intricate paths into this new home for the Kaplak Blog. Kaplak’s first site was since it’s inception last summer born as a temporary website for Kaplak. It’s primary purpose was to host the blog and the mailing list until we had developed our first online strategy. Now, we’re in the process of implementing this strategy for our online presence. This mindmap roughly illustrates what this entails :

Kaplak is not just one website – we’re building a presence on a number of different platforms, from Twitter and del.icio.us to YouTube and Facebook, and on countless others. Many of these platforms are tied together by RSS, which makes it (which is the goal) comparatively easy or convenient to travel (i.e. follow links) between these different platforms and communities.

One important step in the process has been to move the blog to it’s own domain, with new powerful software (WordPress) and plugins, so that we could ‘free up’ the main domain for a complete revamp. The purpose of Kaplak.com changes to become a key entry point on the web for the “signup and upload” process for new customers. This will be closely connected to the Kaplak Marketplace, which will be Kaplak’s main original contribution to the web. We have some clever ideas in Kaplak about how to avoid what we have termed the mainstream problem and look very much forward to showing this part of our activities off to the world.

The next step in the implementation of our strategy will be setting up a decent skin for and opening up our public Kaplak Wiki.

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