Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Shared-discovery blogging

I’ve found a new iTunes-compatible public radio station, KCRW from Santa Monica, CA. It’s a good station for me because it’s in the Pacific zone, so they’re playing early morning stuff in my early morning. I still like WNYC, WAMU and WBUR, but they’re on the other coast.

Anyway…

I’ve heard it said that blogs are about conversations — I’ve never agreed with this.

I’ve seen people complain that if I don’t say things they can react to then they have nothing to say — I don’t pity them.

Hey there are already lots of ways of having conversations on the net, email, IM, mail lists, usenet. We hardly need another way to have conversation.

I blog to share discoveries, large and small, mundane and profound and everything inbetween.

Then search engines can pick up my observations, and make them available to others.

The better search gets, the more valuable blogs become.

Here’s an example. This morning I started listening to KCRW in Santa Monica, a Los Angeles public radio station. Now, a few hours later I’m listening to a music show that’s got all this interesting pop music, stuff you never hear on public or commercial radio elsewhere. In Boston, you get classical on WGBH. At WAMU in DC, which may be the closest public radio station to the Appalachians, you get excellent bluegrass. I bet if Nashville has a public radio station they do country and western. Well, Los Angeles is the HQ for pop music, and presumably draws people who are interested in new stuff that they might be able to sell to everyone else, so you get world pop. Very interesting stuff. What a surprise, but then if you think about, not a surprise at all.

See how that’s not part of a conversation? I’m not calling some other blogger a bad name, or saying he or she is stupid, or whatever. I’m not trying to get on Memeorandum. But maybe some search engine will come along and figure out that there’s some data here, it might connect some dots between various public radio stations based on the kind of music they play. Then when someone wants to know about it they’ll find it.

Maybe the best blogger for shared discovery blogging is Phillip Greenspun in Cambridge. I think he even once wrote a piece like this one where he explained that blogging, to him, is kind of a responsibility for a curious person who does interesting things, or even someone who does mundane things but has a curious way of looking at the world.

A rambler on flaming in the blogosphere

Talking with Scoble today we agreed that the blogosphere has gained many of the negative traits of mail lists or Usenet. There are certain topics that, if approached, will result in a flameout. So you don’t go there.

Imho there’s no point blogging if you accept those constraints. There aren’t many people who do the flaming, but they do control discourse, because they control things like who gets to speak at conferences. Since I don’t get to speak at the conferences anyway, perhaps I should start to go through these barriers, accept the flaming, and go ahead and say what I think.

I even get flamed from the podium at conferences where I’m not allowed to speak. It’s practically institutional by now, everyone knows its done, it’s even openly discussed at the conferences that it works this way. I hear about it, in email from people who are there, and don’t like it. That’s new and positive. It shows that perhaps our community is overcoming this limit.

Since coming back to the Bay Area, I’ve been seeking out local speaking opportunities and smaller events, or new places like Mike Arrington’s BBQ (where I gave the keynote, proving that Mike’s sense of humor is intact). There’s a new generation of software entrepreneurs who have only heard the nasty stuff about me, which sets expectations low, and that’s actually pretty good. They seem surprised that I can carry on a conversation like a relatively normal person, and I don’t spit when I talk. Last night I explained it this way. I’m a celebrity. And what matters to people is what they think of me, not who I really am. But, by going out and talking to people, that negates the negative buzz, and I hope raises some questions when people say the nasty stuff. It’s hard to overcome the tar-and-feathering that has been done to my reputation, but I’m trying. I think my contribution is solid, and not in question, and after that it’s just a matter of taste.

Yesterday I wrote, in my BDG to RSS 2.0:

“Some people will say I’m stupid, or corrupt, or incorrigible, even toxic, or any number of negative personal things. What they’re really saying is they don’t like me. That’s okay, no one is liked by everyone. It doesn’t hurt my feelings, and you shouldn’t worry about it, because I don’t.”

There’s more to say about that. When someone says that kind of personal stuff, you can turn it back and ask them why they are making it so personal, and how do they know so much about Dave. My bet they don’t know me at all and they have a reason to want you not to listen to me. I won’t show you that kind of disrespect, I want you to get all the opinions you feel you need, and then make the right choice, for you. You should never base your opinion of some idea on what someone else thinks of the person who is advocating the idea. That is a perfect example of disrespect, of you.

Blogging is part of life

I agree with the author of the Slate piece that’s getting so much play in the blogosphere, up to a point. The things that called themselves blogs that came from Denton and Calacanis are professional publications written by paid journalists that use blogging software for content management. That’s fine and I suppose you can call them blogs, but don’t get confused and think that their supposed death (which itself is arguable) has anything to do with the amateur medium that is blogging. They’re separate things, on separate paths with different futures.

To say blogging is dead is as ridiculous as saying email or IM or the telephone are dead. The blog never belonged on the cover of magazines, any more than email was a cover story (it never was) but that doesn’t mean the tool isn’t useful inside organizations as a way to communicate, and as a way for businesses to learn how the public views them and their competitors.

Blogs are where new businesses will spring from. Think of blogs as being like dorm rooms, and remember that’s where Dell Computer came from. Blogging communities are incubators. Some communities incubate negative stuff, plenty of those, but occasionally a blogging community serves as the launching pad for something good. There will be a steady stream of those, and they will be on the cover of magazines, and will belong there.

My work is not a joke

In the last week there were two really ugly incidents in the OPML community, and I can see other people threatening to do more. I don’t participate in these destructive situations, it’s very one-sided stuff. I’ve learned, over and over, if you feed the flamers, it just helps them do whatever it is that they’re trying to do.

Now, sometimes they’re competitors who don’t want to compete based on the usual things, product quality, service and price. They want to create emotional issues, and they can do it, if you let them. It can be very successful, there are whole companies made this way. Interestingly the model only works so far, eventually they have to get down to business, and by then they have their own flamers, people who try to, for reasons fo their own, to bring them down.

If people are going flame as a way to compete, I’m going to out them, very plainly in unemotional language. So don’t go there if you don’t want to be embarassed.

Make a better product and the world will be a better place, but try to take a shortcut and it’s going to come back at you. The web gives extrordinary power to flamers, but now we’re going to see if it doesn’t give us the tools to fight back, cleanly and with clarity.

If you’re getting ready to flame and you’re not competing, do us all a favor and do your stuff somewhere else. We’re just working here, trying to create some new software and a new community. If you want something else, then go somewhere else.

How the NY Times came to support RSS

The history of RSS is usually told only in one dimension, it’s the story of geeks fighting with geeks, so they say, but in my humble opinion, that’s really not the story.

Most of the vocal people on the mail lists, blogs and wikis are more fans than creators. It’s as if we confused baseball players with people who sit in the stands watching a baseball game. Sure, both wear caps and want their team to win, but one actually does something about it, while the others expresses an opinion. There are a lot of fans, but relatively few people who actually do anything.

Mike Lopez, posting on this blog yesterday recalls a story he heard on NPR about basketball great Wilt Chamberlain and his relationship with fans. Chamberlain’s philosophy: it’s easier to humor them than to argue with them.

Analogously, in the age of Wikipedia, fans can give themselves credit not just for being there when Wilt had his amazing 100 point game, but they can actually claim to have had the 100 point game themselves. Welcome to the Internet. Community participation is both its strongest and weakest point. And those who say I’m a consistent supporter of the medium miss that I am as frequently its victim. Sadly. 😦

Anyway, the NY Times is not a sideline player in the history of RSS, as I’ve written before, they played a central role, first denying us permission to use their content, then allowing it, and in doing so, providing an example for the rest of the publishing industry, which followed their lead without undermining them, without reinventing the technology, to their credit.

It was on this day in 2001 that I received a call from a “Rights and Contracts manager” at the New York Times, she asked us to stop reading their XML newsfeeds. I complied with the request. A colleague who will remain nameless had snuck me a link to an unprotected directory where the feeds, in a proprietary XML-based format, resided. I then repurposed the information and published it on a UserLand server. Truth be told, I expected to be shut down, but in doing so, I also expected to get the attention of higher-ups at the Times (who I knew read my blog) and it surely did.

Then early in 2002, I had a dinner with Martin Nisenholtz and Times board member Dave Liddle and two San Francisco-based Times reporters, where I pitched them on two things: 1. Publish in RSS, and 2. Give blogs to every Times reporter. They took me up on #1 and in April we published the Times content, but not in RSS (although we were permitted to by our contract), instead using the Times’s proprietary format. Why did we do that? Well I figured that if we pubished in RSS 0.92, which was then our most advanced format, it would drag the Times into a format war and they might think it’s not worth the trouble and ask us to stop publishing their content. So I decided to ease them into the community, first publishing invisibly to the people on the mail lists, and then, once their presence was cemented, we switched over to RSS 2.0.

So the loud and obnoxious fans on the mail lists shaped the story, a little. Instead of confronting their loudness, we side-stepped it. Now the Times may or may not be seen as the “tipping point” more widely, but I see it that way. Without the Times, we would have remained in disagreement, stuck in mail list hell, never achieving the promise of the technology. We all owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude, and should learn the lesson well, don’t look for leadership in standards to the netizens or to Silicon Valley, look to users who have a stake in making the technology work. Imho, that’s the key to getting things to move forward.

How to reform the VC industry

There’s a wisp of a discussion materializing in the tech blogosphere about reforming the VC industry. I have been thinking about this for many many years. It’s an exciting time because I think it might actually happen now. Here’s the rough outline of my plan to reshape the VC industry around the philosophy of the web.

1. One word: disintermediate. Take out the middleman. We don’t need the partners, limited or general, they gum up the works. We need money to start new ventures. Luckily we know the people with the money, they’re the users. And we need people to validate the ideas. Same people, the users.

2. It’s not actually a new idea. That’s how Netscape and the dotcommers that followed went through the roof of the stock market. People who traded could see the raw power of the Internet and knew, one way or the other, that this was going to change how everything was done, from business to romance, travel, gambling, everything. So the users of the Internet bid the stock of the Internet up. And up. And up. And so on.

3. So what did the middlemen do exactly? They invested in all kinds of idiotic things. Anyone could have made the bets they did. The users hadn’t had time to fully absorb the Internet in the 1990s so they bought all the garbage the middlemen shipped, leading to online pet food companies with market caps exceeding the largest industrial companies.

4. So now we’re in the middle of the next decade, and the users are caught up, and we’ve got a pipeline going, from entrepreneur to user, and maybe not much inbetween. Matt Mullenweg hasn’t taken on any VC to start wordpress.com. Who knows how far he can go without having to sell stock? I don’t want to say how he’s paying the bills, I’ll leave that up to Matt, but suffice it to say it’s honest, sustainable, and legal.

5. In any case, I’m sure there will be startups that need capital. Let’s assume so. So let’s start a new company, with Rick Segal as the CEO (if he’ll do it) called User Internet Capital Corp or something catchier. File all the right paper with the SEC, and do an IPO. You have to, because we’re going to be selling shares to the public right at the start. This thing will be public from day one. The purpose of the company will be to invest in promising young Internet companies, chosen by the users, nurture them through startup, get them liquid through acquisition or IPO and distribute dividends to the shareholders accordingly. Retain some cash for overhead and (I insist on this) a small percentage for pure technology research and development, so there will be new ideas to base the startups of 2009 and 2011 on.

That’s it. Never stop investing. All you have to do is listen to the users, who also happen to be the owners. How about that?

Postscript #1

About the “I insist on this” part — of course that’s negotiable. I wanted to get that in there initially so it would be discussed.

It came from a chance meeting on the street with John Doerr shortly after the dotcom bust. I said to him, next time, make sure you have some new ideas in development while you’re riding the wave, to avoid this boom-bust cycle, or at least to cushion the fall and shorten the downtime.

So I’m not talking about the individual projects, I’m talking about big ideas. Imho, money should have been funneled to TBL’s project in the early 90s, who knows how much further the web might have gotten in its early stages if there had been some money around then. I can tell you for sure that RSS could have used some resources while it was in gestation, while Doerr & Co were feasting on the meal that TBL prepared for them. I don’t have to imagine how much further along we’d be now, I know.

Also some of the money should be earmarked for funding open source projects. Another mistake made by Doerr was not flowing some of their return into the underpinnings they’re building on. Watching Podshow recruit engineers now (from a distance of course) I can see how a few bucks from KP a few years ago would have left them a lot closer to realizing their potential now (or not). Now they have to reinvent a lot of wheels because open source projects are largely understaffed.

So I’m proposing to practice what I preach. It’s like leaving some money on the table after you eat a meal, as a gratuity for service. If we’re going to return a dividend to the shareholders (we’d better or its not worth it) we should also support the people and ideas that brought us here, and invest in our future.

Hopefully that clears it up a bit.

Postscript #2

Mark Evans writes: “So who are these people and what makes them more insightful than VCs?”

That’s a very fair question, and I’m sorry that wasn’t clear, I did just kind of gloss over the idea, but it’s very important, so I’ll elaborate.

The users validate the ideas. I’m sure the prices of Flickr and de.licio.us were a function of how many users they have. They call it user generated content, and it’s what drives market cap of acquisitions these days.

So, while there would need to be some kind of an investment committee that decides where to allocate seed capital to get initial ideas going, from there, it’s the number of users, the need for scale that drives the flow of money.

If a Flickr needs more servers, or wants to hire some programmers to create some new functionality, they get the money (and we get equity of course) as determined by the number of users and the rate of growth, and somehow related to how valuable the users are. We can afford to be crass about it, because we are the users.

What is friendship?

Upfront caveat. There are approx 80,000 people who will think this post is about them. It’s not. That’s the point. 🙂

I write a blog, have since the mid 90s or so, and I sometimes write in a personal fashion, and people connect to that, which is fine, but it often creates misunderstandings that, I think, go deeply into how humans evolved, and how that evolution never anticipated a medium where a written word could be read by so many people without a connection coming back.

This leads to a sense of familiarity, which is expected, but it can also give a sense of intimacy, even friendship, which is wrong, because what’s going on here is not friendship, although inside us many of the feelings that come from being a regular reader of a weblog are the same ones we feel as we are developing a friendship, in the world evolution designed us for. But this is not that world.

And with this comes a tough lesson, and unfortunately it seems, you only learn this by living, television doesn’t teach it, schools don’t teach it, and if you’re above a certain age, our parents didn’t teach it. You have to learn it by living, by thinking of someone as a friend, only to find out they don’t think of you as a friend. It can be devastating, I know, I’ve been there myself. But all the wishing, all the manipulation, all the determination, just serves to push the would-be friend further away. Because friendship is something you choose to do, you don’t do it out of a sense of obligation. To force someone to be a friend is to not have a friend.

It’s not just something that happens with blogs, celebrity of any kind yields a false intimacy, they’ve made dozens of movies about it. The star is objectified. In the presence of a fan, the star is not a human, it’s an object, it behaves the way the fan wants it to behave. It signs the autograph, it smiles, it thanks. Stephen King wrote a horror story about this called Misery in which the protagonist is bound, held hostage and tortured by a fan. There’s an awful DeNiro movie, where he plays a fan who’s determined to be friends with a star, played by Jerry Lewis. It’s one of the few movies I’ve walked out on, it’s so hard to watch.

I learned a lot about friends when I got sick in 2002. I learned that a friend is someone I trust to be with me when I am at my weakest and most vulnerable. And they are people who, no matter how painful it is to see, are willing to be with me when I am so helpless and weak. If I would trust my life with you, and vice versa, we are friends. It’s not about whether you are trustworthy, or whether you are friendly, it’s the actual act of trust that is the basis of friendship. If I trust you to be truthful, then you’re a friend. If I find I must be careful how I say things, then it’s something other than friendship.

Friendship is not a state of mind, it’s an act. It’s something you do, it’s not about whether you’re good or not, it’s not a reflection of you, it’s a balanced relationship between people. That doesn’t mean it’s always balanced at every moment. Sometimes you “need a friend” and other times it’s the other way. It’s a trust that’s returned. When I was younger and thought I was in love, a friend said it’s not love unless it’s returned. Friendship and love are not quite the same thing, although there’s a lot of love around friendship. I learned that love isn’t even something about two people, it’s a state of being for one person. You aren’t in love, you are love. You are, whether you acknowledge it or not. The heart that’s pumping blood through your body is an act of love, 24 hours a day, whether you’re Mother Teresa or Adolf Hitler. (Sorry for the extreme example.)

There’s a world of difference between being a friend and being a fan. I’ve heard people who I’ve never met say we’re friends. And then of course when I do something they don’t like, I’ve betrayed the supposed friendship. They’re living in a dreamworld. The more popular my weblog has become the more people have this dream. It’s very puzzling to be the object in the middle of this swirl of emotions, I say object because my job isn’t to be truthful, my job is to be who you think I should be. Of course that’s not friendship, that’s torture.

In 1997 I wrote: “When a friend changes you can find the bond that’s connecting you at a deeper level. The surface stuff isn’t a good thing to depend on. Physical bodies change as they grow. So do emotional bodies and intellectual ones. Take a deep breath. People move, life is more like a wild dance than a ceremony. You just can’t tell what’s coming next.”

So if you find yourself trying to coerce someone into not changing, then dear reader, that is not friendship, that is coercion.

A postscript

One thing I feel needs to be said is that there are many other relationships that aren’t friendship that are still positive. There are many people I admire who aren’t friends. I work with lots of people who aren’t friends. In fact, I often think it’s a bad idea to work with your friends (more on that another time).

The world isn’t divided into two parts — friends and enemies. I choose to think of friend as a very strong word, representing a very close relationship. I think this may be in part due to what I do, because I need a good solid line separating my public life from my personal. A friend is a personal relationship. I like and admire many people who I don’t consider friends.

A second postscript

One of the hallmarks of a person who is more likely to be a friend-that-was than a friend-for-life, is that person quotes anonymous people who say they were my friend but I betrayed them. That’s such a huge turnoff, that usually wakes me up in an instant. A friend would never even consider saying something like that, because it’s so objectifying, so impersonal, so unfair, so un-friendly. In a court of law you’re entitled to cross-examine your accusers. Same in the court of friendship.