If Facebook’s IPO filing does anything besides mint a lot of millionaires, it will be to shine a rather unsettling light on a fact most of us would rather not acknowledge: The web as we know it is rather like our polar ice caps: under severe, long-term attack by forces of our own creation.
And if we lose the web, well, we lose more than funny cat videos and occasionally brilliant blog posts. We lose a commons, an ecosystem, a “tangled bank” where serendipity, dirt, and iterative trial and error drive open innovation. Google’s been the focus of most of this analysis (hell, I called Facebook an “existential threat” to Google on Bloomberg yesterday), but I’d like to pull back for a second.
This post has been brewing in me for a while, but I was moved to start writing after reading this piece in Time:
Now, it didn’t catch my eye because of its subject – Causes – but because of what its subject was doing: refocusing its business back out on the Independent Web, from its original home in the zoological garden that is the Facebook platform.
(image) Earlier this week I ventured down to the Silicon Valley from my lair on the side of Mt. Tamalpais in Marin. Those of you who have visited Marin might understand why for me, after more than 25 years of working across the bridge in San Francisco and on planes around the world, I find it rather pleasant to just stay in my office and Think Big Thoughts whenever possible. But duty called, Jonathan Zittrain (who I’ve interviewed here) had asked me to participate in a conference he was hosting called “Ideas For A Better Internet,” and it was an honor to be asked.
Not to mention, I needed to get down to the Valley to see a few folks at Facebook (more on that in another post).
Given the conference convened on the eve of yesterday’s historic SOPA protest, the room was laden with potential energy. Groups of students presented their ideas for improving the Internet, and various luminaries pronounced on the issues of the day.
Toward the end of the evening, we had a panel with various notables (and me, for some reason). SOPA threaded in and out of that discussion, and I’m sure I had any number of things to say about it which were perfectly forgettable. But I do recall one thing that I said has stuck with me: We can’t afford to not engage with Washington anymore.
Now, plenty of folks have said this, and a few have even made it their life’s work in the past several years. Silicon Valley is waking up to the fact that we have to be part of the process in Washington – for too long we’ve treated “Government” as damage, and we’ve routed around it.
The battle over SOPA and PIPA is a signal event in the history of our industry. The bills were breezing their way through the final days of Congress’s pre-holiday session, and just about everyone thought they’d pass. But thanks to Reddit, Boing Boing, and countless other independent voices, the issue caught fire across the Internet, and we all realized we had an existential threat on our hands. Protests were organized, large companies like Google and Amazon joined the movement, and within two weeks, the Obama administration had come out against key provisions of the legislation (doing it on a Saturday, perhaps hoping no one would notice, but at least they did it).
But the fight isn’t over. In fact, it’s only starting. And the folks who basically wrote SOPA/PIPA are pissed, and they plan on using the same tactics they always have when they don’t get what they want: They’re throwing around their money. Or, put another way, they’re withdrawing it. Go read this article to see what I mean:
Does this matter? Damn straight it does. In politics, money not only talks, it seduces, it cajoles, it forces, and it commands. And this is one of the boldest declarations of what’s wrong with our political system I’ve seen in quite some time. Major Obama donors in Hollywood assumed they were buying their way into legislative protection of their threatened business models, and when the President didn’t do their bidding, they “leaked” their displeasure to Finke’s widely read blog. But to call it displeasure is a disservice. It’s more like the tantrum of gods who have come to realize that no one believes their myths anymore.
Check this quote: “God knows how much money we’ve given to Obama and the Democrats and yet they’re not supporting our interests.”
Are. You. Kidding Me? What exactly *are* Hollywood’s interests? As far as I can tell, they don’t want their movies and music pirated. I can get behind that concept, no problem, and so can most reasonable people (the President said as much on Saturday). And we already have laws that make piracy illegal. If they’re not enough (I honestly don’t know one way or the other), let’s be serious about how best to strengthen those laws, that shall we? Gutting the Internet as we know it so as to protect an industry that is already immensely successful is, well, beyond silly.
There are deeply naunced arguments to be had about this issue, and I’m not going to get into all of them here. What I do want to talk about is this issue of money in politics.
Bear with me as I tell you another story. A few weeks ago I ran into a fellow who I won’t call out publicly, because I like him too much and haven’t asked for his permission to use his name. He’s a very successful businessman who has worked tirelessly on behalf of President Obama’s various political campaigns, mainly in the area of fundraising. And to make a long story short, he essentially offered me an opportunity to brainstorm with the President and various members of his staff on the subject of tech and Internet policy.
The catch? It’d cost me about as much as a year’s tuition at any one of our nation’s finer private educational institutions. Which is….a lot of fucking money.
Why am I telling you this story? Because I was tempted to pay that fee so as to get in front of the President. But upon reflection, I realized I would be doing exactly what Hollywood has done, playing the same game, and expecting the same results. Were Obama to sign legislation I disagreed with, I’d feel cheated – “Hey, that’s not what I paid for!”
Not to mention, it struck me that if the President and his staff truly valued my input, they’d ask for it without requiring a check at the same time. I’ve been paid an awful lot to opine on any number of topics over the course of my career. I’m not looking to BE paid – in fact, I’d be proud to offer what advice I can simply to be part of the process. But to ask to PAY, well, it just feels wrong. Here’s how I put it in an email to that businessman friend of mine:
Fact is, Obama or his team should be sitting down with people like me to get smarter on tech policy (and in my case, on media and marketing regulation). They should be seeking out people like me in all fields. Instead, they cannot afford to do it unless a steep price tag is paid – it fucks up the social relationship totally and changes the dynamics of how the world actually works in normal information sharing scenarios between smart people.
My friend the fund-raising businessman agreed with my point, but he’s a realist: This is how the world works, he told me. We have to pay to play.
I think that’s a tragedy. I’ve pointed out on Twitter that at the moment, Hollywood has given seven times more money to the various backers of SOPA than our industry has. Many in our industry believe the way to tip the balance back our way is to simply play the same game, and out-donate the bastards. (Lord knows we have the money…)
But that sure as hell doesn’t sound very Internet-y to me. We have a problem on our hands, folks. In our own businesses, when faced with a problem, we find innovative solutions. We don’t just throw money at it. That’s the beauty of our industry.
There’s got to be a better way. And as I said at the Stanford conference, I for one am committing myself to helping figure this out. My first step will be to read this new book from Larry Lessig, an intellectual warrior who many (including myself) lament as bailing on our core issue of IP law to tilt at the supposed windmill of political corruption.
But I think, upon deeper reflection, that Larry is simply playing chess a few moves ahead of us all. It’s time to catch up, and move forward together.
Update: Larry spoke the same night as I did, at the Long Now Foundation. I would have been there had it not been for my commitment to Zittrain, who is Larry’s replacement at Harvard, in a funny twist. Anyway, here’s the link to Kevin Kelly’s very cogent summary. Totally worth checking out.
My predictions this year will be pretty focused on the Internet Big Five (Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook) but the first two focus on Twitter. Why? Because Twitter is poised to become a critical “free radical” whose presence affects the actions of all the Big Five players. And 2012 will be the year this becomes readily apparent. In short: In 2012, every Big Five Internet company will need to have a clear Twitter strategy. At the moment, not all of them do.
What do I mean when I use the term “free radical”? Well, taken loosely from molecular chemistry and biology, free radicals are particles with open shells or unpaired electrons – they cause change in otherwise stable systems. I take the term with a bit more license, however – to me Twitter is the only Internet service at scale that has yet to ossify into a predictable platform with a massive revenue base to protect. This fact, plus the company’s liberal philosophical bent toward free speech, positions Twitter as something of a shape-shifting arms merchant in the ongoing battle between the Internet Big Five. Believe me, any one of the Five would kill to own Twitter, several of them have tried to buy the company over the past few years. It’s now clear that Twitter’s path is one of independence. To succeed, it must become the Swiss bank of social intent, providing its services in some kind of useful way to each and every one of the Big Five.
2011 has already set the table for how this year is going to play out. In short, Microsoft and Apple embraced Twitter, Google and Facebook rejected it, and Amazon stayed on the sidelines, for the most part.
Last year, Google allowed its search deal with Twitter to expire (not for lack of trying, I am sure), and then rolled out Google+, which is clearly a Twitter competitor (sure, it’s also a Facebook competitor, but let’s keep this post focused, shall we? Google+ replaced Twitter in Google’s search service. Enough said.). Microsoft, on the other hand, was happy to renew its deal. It’ll do more with Twitter in 2012, to be sure.
Last year was the year Facebook pretty much copied everything Twitter does, up to and including the “Subscribe” feature, which is pretty much a full copy of Twitter inside the Facebook walled garden. Meanwhile Apple embraced Twitter wholeheartedly, with a deal that clearly benefited from Facebook negotiations gone south. And as I said earlier, Amazon didn’t see much reason to work with Twitter, save adding a few new handles to its corporate identity.
In 2012, every Big Five player is going to have to reckon (again) with Twitter. And it’s my hope that Twitter’s approach to these Internet behemoths is to force them all to play by the same rules. In other words, no exclusive deals for any of them. If Google wants to integrate Twitter natively into Android (the way Apple has with iOS), why, great. Twitter won’t refuse to do so because Apple objects. Should Microsoft care to build Twitter natively into Xbox Live, again, no problem, but sorry Microsoft, Twitter keeps the right to allow Sony or Nintendo (or, gasp, Facebook proxy Zynga) the same option. When Amazon starts publicly acting like a full-blown media company (and not just a distribution or ecommerce player), it will cut a deal with Twitter for distribution and data, quite possibly in the advertising network space. Amazon’s competitors will have nothing to say about it. And if Facebook ever wakes up and realizes that Twitter might play a part in its strategy in some important way, Twitter will be more than happy to figure out a deal, even if Google objects.
In short, the Internet Big Five need a neutral player they can all draw on for value and features that any one of them can’t (or won’t) do – for any number of reasons. This is the role Google played in the first five years of Web 2.o (but increasingly can’t play due to conflicts with owned and operated properties like YouTube, Android, Google+, Places, etc.). For now, Google and Facebook still think they can out-Twitter Twitter. Microsoft and Apple have already punted on competing directly. I’m predicting 2012 is the year Google and Facebook come around and work with Twitter in some new, significant way, as will Amazon.
This is a pretty risky prediction to make, to be sure. Sitting here in January of 2012, it’s quite easy to argue that the folks at Facebook and Google see absolutely no reason to work with Twitter. But there’s an important reason to work with Twitter that hasn’t become quite evident, yet. And that has to do with the concept of openness and the need for third party validation in the eyes of government and consumer scrutiny. More on that in a future prediction.
The Web is dead again, at least, according to a widely covered speech by Forrester Research’s George Colony.
Speaking at Le Web last week, Colony claimed that the HTML web is a poorly architected half step in the next, obvious progression of platforms: a hybrid between what we’ve come to know as the Web and the crippled chicletized place I’ve been calling AppWorld. In a stroke of nomenclature insight, Colony calls this new platform the App-Internet.
Colony argues that, unlike apps, the Web doesn’t leverage the processing and storage power of edge devices (like the iPad or a smartphone, for example. Or, say, an old school computer, like the one I’m using right now to write this post.)
In theory, I agree with Colony, but I’m not sure the real issues are elucidated in his speech, or in much of the coverage of it. If the next version of the “Web” loses that which makes the web special, it won’t be the web anymore. That’s when, for me anyway, the “web will be dead.” If the web keeps its core principles, well, then, we’ll keep calling it the web, I’d wager, even if it ends up looking like the “app-internet.”
– No gatekeepers. The web is decentralized. Anyone can start a web site. No one has the authority (in a democracy, anyway) to stop you from putting up a shingle. Of course, we live in a society of law, so if that new site breaks a law, well, you might have to take that shingle down. That’s OK with me.
– An ethos of the commons. The web developed over time under an ethos of community development, and most of its core software and protocols are royalty free or open source (or both). There wasn’t early lockdown on what was and wasn’t allowed. This created chaos, shady operators, and plenty of dirt and dark alleys. But it also allowed extraordinary value to blossom in that roiling ecosystem. Over time, the good actors have come to agree on best practices which have allowed an extraordinary new resource to thrive. These practices include privacy policies, data use policies, and even some reasonable law (we’re still working out a lot of the law part, but it’s happening slowly and with consideration, as I believe it should). In short, we’re taking the time to codify the rules of the road on the web. We’ve not pushed it into early lockdown in terms of policy. The same is absolutely not true of AppWorld.
– No preset rules about how data is used. If one site collects information from or about a user of its site, that site has the right to do other things with that data, assuming, again, that it’s doing things that benefit all parties concerned. If it does stupid things, that site will be called out, and folks won’t visit it anymore. Yes, some people may get burned, but on balance, we’ve decided that it’s better to allow sites and their customers to determine the best use of data, rather than pre-determine data policy to the point where innovation is stifled. This is something of a corollary to my point above, but it bears explanation. Here’s one small example: When I watch a movie on Netflix using its website, Netflix stores information about how I watch that movie. If I stop watching and leave the site, Netflix remembers where I stopped, and gives me the option to resume the next time I go to the site. And if I fire up my iPad and launch the Netflix app, it also remembers where I was – because you can import data from the web into Apple’s AppWorld. But if I start watching a movie in AppWorld, then go to the open web to continue watching it, I can’t resume the movie. Netflix doesn’t remember what I’ve done on its iOS app. Why? Because in AppWorld, data can come in, but it can’t go out. This stifles innovation in so many ways I’m going to have to write another post to explain it.
– Neutrality. No one site on the web is any more or less accessible than any other site. If it’s on the web, you can find it and visit it. This is a corollary of “no gatekeepers,” but again, it bears elucidation. In current versions of AppWorld, finding anything is a challenge, and the winners are almost always those who get special treatment in a gatekeeper’s storefront.
– Interoperability. Sites on the web share common protocols and principles, and determine independently how to work with each other. There is no centralized authority which decides who can work with who, in what way. In AppWorld, the apps don’t talk to each other, and from what I can tell, you need permission from the gatekeeper if you’re going to work around that fact. Again, this stifles true innovation. Imagine if Google needed permission from some overlord to crawl the web back in 1998. It would never have gotten off the ground, and the second great Web boom may never have happened.
I’m sure I’ve missed a few key points, but I think you get the picture. If Colony’s “app-internet” sheds the crappy parts of AppWorld, and keeps the best parts of our current Web, I’m all for it. But if the reverse happens, I’m all in – against it. Long live the web!
(image) An interesting interview in the NYT I missed from last week, with noted author Neal Stephenson. In it, he riffs on something that’s been bugging me as I work on the book. Asked about “the future of computing,” he responds:
“I’ll tell you what I’d like to see happen,” he said, and began discussing what the future was supposed to have looked like, back in his 1960s childhood. He ticked off the tropes of what he called “techno-optimistic science fiction,” including flying cars and jetpacks. And then computers went from being things that filled a room to things that could fit on a desk, and the economy and industries changed. “The kinds of super-bright, hardworking geeky people who, 50 years ago, would have been building moon rockets or hydrogen bombs or what have you have ended up working in the computer industry, doing jobs that in many cases seem kind of ignominious by comparison.”
Again, a beat. A consideration, perhaps, that he is talking about the core readership for his best sellers. No matter. He’s rolling. He presses on.
“What I’m kind of hoping is that this is just kind of a pause, while we assimilate this gigantic new thing, ubiquitous computing and the Internet. And that at some point we’ll turn around and say, ‘Well, that was interesting — we have a whole set of new tools and capabilities that we didn’t have before the whole computer/Internet thing came along.’ ”
He said people should say, “Now let’s get back to work doing interesting and useful things.”
I know that many of us in the Internet industry believe we are working on things that are changing the world. But it’s worth asking ourselves if honestly that’s true. We’ve got some really big problems to attack, and we need the best minds of our generation on them.
Stephenson’s thoughts are elucidated in more detail in a piece he wrote for World Policy here.