No to the paradigm, yes to the market

Google Wave logoI felt a bit sad yesterday, when I heard. Google has now pulled the plug on Google Wave. Not because I used it much. In fact I didn’t. I’ve used Google Docs, where I had a lot of my work already, and where I could easily share and (as it turned out) collaboratively develop documents. Even the live typing known from Google Wave made it’s entry into Google Docs.

More than anything shutting down Google Wave seems like a strategical decision, and even one which has been a long way in the coming. Google probably could choose to invest more and develop Google Wave much further, if they chose to do so, even without as large a user base, as ‘they had hoped for’. But they choose not to. In short, in my analysis, Google Apps is where the money is, and by slowly introducing aspects and elements of functionality from Wave into Google Apps, like they’ve done with Google Docs, they get to monetize what they’ve built with wave, scrapping the rest.

But I felt sad because I love the paradigm, that the Google Wave team were spearheading. We need something other than desktop documents, this has long been obvious, ever since wikis came along. We need something other than email, because email has lots and lots of drawbacks and disadvantages despite it’s broad adoption. It is foolish to send back and forth desktop documents and revisions. Google Docs, which basically is MSWord on the web, has now sadly succumbed even further to the WYSIWYG crowd, which makes the loyal user experience slower and more painful, in order to, apparently, please people who are not willing to learn new things and load a lot of fluff, which is basically not needed to ‘just craft documents’.

I agree with all that the Google Wave team said and did. Yet I did not use it very much. Few people I knew used it. It was (too) hard finding information in it, a bit surprising given the fact that it was built by a company based on search and information filtering. I couldn’t delete waves, so I felt my space was too cluttered with half-hearted attempts and crap, which didn’t make me want to come back very often. I couldn’t decide who or precisely how many I wanted to invite to the party. I didn’t feel I had sufficient control over my data. I couldn’t export my waves to something useful I could work with outside of Wave, like a pdf or html-like file. Surprisingly, waves could not even be imported into Google Docs, despite both products being developed by the same company. Wave had awesome filesharing potential, but noone used it for this. Obvious way though to share torrents and other useful bits, but then again, one can do the same with Google Docs. All in all, I never came to use Wave as much as I would have liked.

Still loved the paradigm, though. And we still have wikis, which are still a lot better in many ways than what Wave had to offer. We still have free software. We will see the paradigm through, with or without Google Wave.

[I lost the expanded version of this post in a server-hell-knows-what-happened thing, which caused WordPress to make a freakshow and develop massive swap... The ridiculous thing is, I had refused to save the draft of the piece I had already created in Notepad, thinking it was safely saved as a draft on the server. Seems I was wrong. Never, never, never trust the web 100%. Never never trust your internet connection. Always always always keep backup.

Anyway the piece had seven points about Google Wave and it's problems with defining it's space, re: ownership, private/public sphere, control of & location of data, access to waves, ability to delete waves etc. It was all very interesting at the time of writing but I don't have the inclination to recreate it all right now. I'll rather rant about my data losses. Maybe some other time.]

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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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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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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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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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Aggregation Tools For WordPress: The Pros And Cons of FeedWordPress and WP-o-Matic

We’re in the process of setting up our Planet-like website Kaplak Stream. I’ve done some extensive reading and testing of the two most prominent aggregation plugins for WordPress and WordPress MU : Guillermo Rauch’s WP-o-Matic plugin and FeedWordPress by Charles Johnson (aka RadGeek) of Feminist Blogs. This article will examine the pros and cons of both these plugins, in their present state.

Both aggregation tools are open source and distributed under a GPL license, which means that anyone may adjust the workings of these plugins and re-publish their version. They are each however developed and pioneered by one developer only, and rely heavily on the committment of their developers.

WP-o-Matic

WP-o-Matic is developed by 16-years old Argentinian wunderkid Guillermo Rauch, who has done a remarkable job. Schedules are very easy to organize. They are called campaigns, and each campaign can fetch as many feeds as you like. Campaigns are executed by cron, which runs on the server and executes the fetching script at specified intervals. If you can’t get cron from your web host, the WP-o-Matic script can be executed by Webcron. Webcron has been a free online service until recently. Now, the service must be paid for, however (at a very low price, one may add).

Pros

  • Wonderfully flexible customization options of each campaign, directly accessible from a brilliantly designed WP admin interface: specified expressions or URL’s can be transformed, and additional custom text or code added to each post in the campaign (such as ads). Great stuff.
  • Uses cronjobs for executing the script, which should provide the greatest reliability, if you can get it.

Cons

  • Doesn’t use timestamp of fed posts, if they are older than the time window set for the campaign. I.e. if a post is months old and you’ve set your campaign to fetch every hour, posts will be timestamped with the time of feeding it, rather than the original timestamp. This sometimes means older posts are published in the wrong or opposite order of the feed, which messes up the chronology of a blog. This, combined with the bugs which makes it difficult to re-run fetches without completely removing the campaign, makes correcting the timestamps a very tedious affair. If timestamps are important to you, this is a no-no.
  • Uses Unix/Linux cronjobs for fetching feeds, which is good if you can get it – and know how to set it up, but not all can or do.
  • Seems unreliable when used without Unix cron. Campaigns are not processed at all, or processed at the wrong time intervals.
  • Bugridden – small bugs such as campaigns not resetting properly, when reset. Complete campaigns and posts have to be deleted if one wants to re-fetch a feed to test a new configuration.
  • Uncertainty if the plugin is supported and developed further by it’s developer. Last release is from October 2007. Guillermo (who has now turned 17) recently announced his continued support for WP-o-Matic and the release of a new version in the near future, along with a new website specifically for this plugin.

FeedWordPress

I initially had problems with feeds from Google Reader (and Twitter, for that matter) – titles showed, but content disappeared. At first I thought this was a general problem with Atom feeds, but it turned out it’s because WordPress (even the latest versions) comes bundled with an outdated Magpie RSS parser. At first glance, the problem wasn’t fixed by exchanging the rss.php and rss-functions.php with the updated ones bundled with FeedWordPress, but reinstalling these files and re-entering the feeds did in fact solve the compatibility problems with Atom feeds. At first, coming from WP-o-Matic’s advanced campaigns setup, I wasn’t impressed with the interface provided by FeedWordPress initially, and the hazzle I had with Atom feeds gave me the impression that this plugin was no match for WP-o-Matic. But as I worked with it, FeedWordPress turned out to be an extremely competent agent for the job.

Pros

  • Extensively well documented
  • Seems to be the more stable and reliable candidate of the two. Works great with WordPress’ built-in cron alone.
  • Built-in API for WP themes and plugins to use
  • Maintained, supported and seems to be actively developed by the developer (last build 8 May 2008)
  • Works great with timestamps – fetches all timestamps from feeds 100% correctly.

Cons

  • Can’t add custom text or code to the posts of each particular feed, except if one utilizes the API. If one utilizes the API from a WP theme, custom changes will apply to all syndicated posts, when they are displayed on the site. This is a solution in cosmetics only, in that the custom layout and text is applied only in the visuals – and not reflected in the actual contents of a post. One has to access the API from within a plugin, which hooks itself up with an action or filter in WordPress, to actually ‘inscribe’ posts with custom text or code, which stays with the post, no matter how it is skinned or re-published by other sites. This requires a bit of PHP coding/hacking skills.
  • Can’t import tags. Tags can be imported by FeedWordPress as new categories, however, which somewhat alleviates the problem, but forces you to go with the category system over tagging or both.

Conclusions

Both these plugins reviewed here possess tremendous power, at the point of your fingertips. None of them are perfect, however, and both still need work, but I’m impressed with both. What they can do, and the power and speed of which these plugins work, is impressive. I’d love to have FeedWordPress feature the powerful customization scheme of WP-o-Matic, and I’d really like to have WP-o-Matic use the WordPress cron so reliably and steadily as FeedWordPress does. And I’d really really like to have WP-o-Matic just get timestamps right, with the ease of FeedWordPress.

However much I adore the flexible and powerful customization interface (the ‘campaign’ setup) of WP-o-Matic, we have to go with the more stable candidate of the two, which is FeedWordPress, IMHO. Especially since we can’t get cron right now, and are reluctant to pay for it right now, if we can get something which works great at this level, without paying for it.

We’re going with FeedWordPress, for these reasons mainly :

  • It works well, even without setting up cronjobs (using WordPress’ built-in cron).
  • It deals well with timestamps. There’s no messing around with the chronology of posts.
  • It is the best documented plugin of the two, and it has an API which makes it easy for us to tweek it for our uses.
  • And we have greater trust in it’s developer Rad Geek/Charles Johnson to continue support and development for this plugin.

When using free software plugins, I find picking the ones you want to use comes down to what killer feature you really want and which developer you trust the most to deliver it and continue development and support.

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The Big Questions

A few months ago, on July 8th 2008, I shot this video at Odense harbour. I didn’t manage to edit it until the 25th. Then my dog died from one week to the other, and I didn’t do any real work on the Kaplak Blog for a complete month. I didn’t at all feel like presenting myself on video on the web, like nothing ever happened. I was ripped to pieces.

I am coming back, though, and what I say in this video is of core importance to what we do in Kaplak. It’s what makes sense of what we do, even when the outside world can’t make sense of it and even when we sometimes ourselves lose focus, when we discuss or dive into technicalities of niche products, long tail distribution, web filtering methods, free software, bittorrent seedboxes and twitter tools.

Here’s the full quote :

The question is, if the tools we have right now are sufficient for us to find relevant information, which we need for our lives, for our businesses, for our children’s educations – and everything in our lives. If these tools are sufficient to survive this onslaught of material which is added to the internet every month. There are millions of new websites created every month, and seach engines can only show a limited amount of results on a results page. So there’s a lot of things which are lost in the filters we use right now to filter the internet. Luckily, there are a lot of new filters and new tools, which are being developed all over the world. So some of these new tools will help us find the information that we need. But the question is, who is it going to be, and what are those tools going to be like, and who is going to control those tools? Those are the really big questions, as we see it.

What’s at stake, in other words is how we filter the web and find information. That’s one thing, and we’re working on it – and so are a lot of very talented people, all over the world.

The other thing is who is going to control these architectures of information. This part is a lot more tricky. This is where free software, the copyfight, DRM activism and ‘cloud computing ideology‘ comes into the picture. This is also why we don’t really like social networks, but love RSS feeds.

To get at the second thing, however, we need to create a sustainable business on the first. But these things are connected, and each day we walk the delicate path between falling into the trap of entrusting our information to proprietary designs, on the one hand – and on the other hand, our vision of a future, where each peer in a global peer-to-peer network of everyone of us is capable of reaching out to whoever he or she wants to connect to. Where even marginal products can be sold, and unpopular messages get out to the people who wants them, without being filtered by the centralized algoritms of corporate monopolies or crude filters of nasty regimes, or without, what is at least equally as bad, being buried in mountains of spam or mainstream crap.

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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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Google’s Business Model

Nicolas Carr has written an in-depth analysis of Google and the implications of the company’s rapid growth and business style, which is well worth the read. It is a clearheaded and concise piece, which is a must read for anyone with even the slightest interest in Google’s business model. Here’s an excerpt :

The way Google makes money is actually straightforward: It brokers and publishes advertisements through digital media. More than 99 percent of its sales have come from the fees it charges advertisers for using its network to get their messages out on the Internet. [...]

For Google, literally everything that happens on the Internet is a complement to its main business. The more things that people and companies do online, the more ads they see and the more money Google makes. In addition, as Internet activity increases, Google collects more data on consumers’ needs and behavior and can tailor its ads more precisely, strengthening its competitive ad­vantage and further increasing its income. As more and more products and services are delivered digitally over computer networks — entertainment, news, software programs, financial transactions — Google’s range of complements is expanding into ever more industry sectors.

Carr’s latest book The Big Switch came out earlier this month (January 7th), and I’m looking forward to reading it. I’m curious if there’s a level in the book beyond the dreary dystopic visions of a future beyond our control, which is a dominating theme in many of the reviews I’ve managed to trawl tonight.

At first mention, I have difficulty swallowing Carr’s notion of a World Wide Computer. Yes, it is true we leave information everywhere about ourselves and our online behaviour patterns whenever we use the internet, and companies (such as Google) are able to collect and analyze a lot of all this data. What’s critical IMHO, is not that this data is available and can be analyzed by individuals as well as companies, but that the means of creating the technological architectures of it’s control are as widely distributed as possible (as well as, which follows, the tools and methods of collecting, analyzing and consuming the data produced by these architectures). Which is why open source software, or more importantly free software, is so important, and why the use and spread of open file formats (as opposed to proprietary formats) should be as widely encouraged as possible by policy makers.

I also have some difficulty with the idea (in the excerpt) that everything happening on or with the internet is somehow beneficial to Google. At a superficial level, Carr is right, new websites is the lifeblood of Google, but the same lifeblood may choke the company, if it doesn’t develop methods of finetuning or reforming search as a method. Google as well as other search engines face an unprecedented growth in the amount of accessible information globally which presents great difficulties for search fundamentally as a method of finding information, at least as any kind of general purpose tool. Anyone who in recent years has experienced lousier and lousier search results can testify to this.

On a related note, I’d like to highly recommend David Vise’s The Google Story for anyone who’d like an enjoyable introduction to the amazing story of the rise of an amazing company – also available in a convenient audio format.

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