PIPA and SOPA explained

Clay Shirky has the best overview I’ve seen/heard/read of PIPA and SOPA and the context from whence they emerged:

Bottom line: the legilsation’s about wanting us to be passive consumers, not producing and not sharing.

The manifesto that made my day

Earlier today I listened to a Buddhist Geeks talk with Stephen Batchelor, who said he was pretty sure there is no god… but then Chris Carfi sent a link to an email list we’re on that aligned so completely with where my life has been going that I thumbed my nose at Batchelor. There clearly is a god, and he made sure that I saw Maureen Johnson’s manifesto today: I AM NOT A BRAND. Have you read it? If not, stop now, go read it, then come back and we’ll talk.

“We can, if we group together, fight off the weenuses and hosebags who want to turn the Internet into a giant commercial…”

The rest of this is about me, and who cares? But I do want to download a bit and make a point.

All I’ve wanted to do for the last couple of decades is help people have meaningful conversations and solve problems together, i.e. build communities and organize effective collaborations. I’ve been in conversatoins about this with all sorts of people, including conversations in the early 2000s about social software and online social networks and how the web that was evolving – conversations captured to some extent in the collaborative paper “Emergent Democracy” that I had worked on with Joi Ito and others, and the post by Tim O’Reilly and Dale Daugherty that described “web 2.0.” I spent a lot of time thinking about political uses of the technology, with the Howard Dean campaign as a laboratory, and co-edited a book about social technology and politics called Extreme Democracy. About four years ago I was working on a consulting methodology that would help people leverage their physical and online social networks more effectively, and while I was working on this people started talking about social media. Specifically social media marketing.

I understand social technology and I get why the social web is attractive and compelling and starting to get all the mindshare we formerly committed to television. Clay Shirky talks about this in Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age: maybe we really wanted, needed, to have two way conversations all along, and broadcast television was just an alternative we had to accept until we got the technology we have now.

Television has confused us, it makes us think that media is (are?_ a vehicle for commercial messages, and without ads and persistent selling, a medium is broken. (This makes me remmber Lance Rose’s contention more than a decade ago that THE INTERNET IS NOT A MEDIUM, it’s an environment, and that’s probably another conversation we should be having.)

I’ve tried to establish my social media cred, but in a world where social media, as a profession, is supposed to be about marketing and selling, I don’t completely fit. It’s not that I’m against selling, but it’s not really what my life’s about, and I’ve never been attracted to the world of sales and marketing, even less so when I found myself in the middle of it.

But I love the idea of building relationships – that businesses can build symmetrical relationships with their customers, and vice versa. Is that the new marketing? Time will tell. I was raving supporter of the ideas in The Cluetrain Manifesto: 10th Anniversary Edition, and I’ve been edging my way into a conversation started by one of its authors, Doc Searls, labeled Project VRM. Doc recently posted a piece called “Manage relationships, not each other,” that makes the point:

During the Industrial Age, the power asymmetry between vendor and customer got so steep that vendors got to talking about customers as if the latter were cattle or slaves. Customers became “targets” that vendors “captured,” “acquired,” “locked in” and “managed.” As the Information Age dawned, however, customers gradually became more independent. So, midway into the second decade of the new millennium, customers were no longer the ones being managed. Nor, however, were vendors. Instead, relationship itself was managed by both parties.

This perspective lines up pretty well with Maureen Johnson’s manifest. “I am not a target” is not unlike “I am not a brand.”

Every person I meet is a universe of experience and intelligence and spectacular complexity. I’m learning to appreciate this point, I can no longer easily and readily reduce someone to a statistic or a line of text or a bald concept bouncing around in my brain… there’s too much. We need more respect and reverence in our lives, and less of the reduction and dehumanization that we’ve somehow fallen into, no doubt driven by old media and mass marketing conceptual shorthand.

So this is where I have to quote, in full, the “I am not a brand” manifesto:

The Internet is made of people. People matter. This includes you. Stop trying to sell everything about yourself to everyone. Don’t just hammer away and repeat and talk at people -— talk TO people. It’s organic. Make stuff for the Internet that matters to you, even if it seems stupid. Do it because it’s good and feels important. Put up more cat pictures. Make more songs. Show your doodles. Give things away and take things that are free. Look at what other people are doing, not to compete, imitate, or compare . . . but because you enjoy looking at the things other people make. Don’t shove yourself into that tiny, airless box called a brand -— tiny, airless boxes are for trinkets and dead people.

Times are changing: foraging, simplicity, Shirky-smart, etc.

Two of the best ideas I heard this week were curated or catalyzed by Clay Shirky.

One is the mathematical concept of the Lévy flight, which I already wrote about in my last post.

The other is in a link e-Patient Dave sent me. I ran across it again in a discussion of models for connectivity (“freedom to connect”). In a post called “The Collapse of Complex Business Models,” Clay discusses Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies, applying Tainter’s thinking to the web and digital media. Tainter says that societies that become increasingly sophisticated will tend to collapse, not despite their sophistication, but because of it.

Early on, the marginal value of this complexity is positive—each additional bit of complexity more than pays for itself in improved output—but over time, the law of diminishing returns reduces the marginal value, until it disappears completely. At this point, any additional complexity is pure cost.

Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.

The ‘and them some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.

He then goes on to explain the evolution of complex and entrenched procedures within sophisticated, high quality media production, and how these are now trumped by the popularity of (commitment of mindshare to) simple, “good enough” media. Clay’s closing paragraph:

When ecosystems change and inflexible institutions collapse, their members disperse, abandoning old beliefs, trying new things, making their living in different ways than they used to. It’s easy to see the ways in which collapse to simplicity wrecks the glories of old. But there is one compensating advantage for the people who escape the old system: when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.

Interesting to note that there are no comments on this post, only pingbacks (links to it by others). It’s an important, already influential piece.

The first point, about foraging, is that people don’t necessarily sustain adoption of something, even if they really really like it. In the early days of blogging, I made this point in talking about links and hits from blogrolls and RSS feeds. Someone finds your blog, they really like it, so they add the link to their news aggregator. Everytime the news aggregator updates, the link to your blog produces hits, but those hits are questionable, because a common behavior is to add an RSS feed, read it for a while if at all, then move on to something else. People don’t get the web delivered every morning as a newspaper, or monthly as a magazine. It’s not push, it’s pull, and they’re surfing based on criteria other than loyalty. We have to adjust our thinking accordingly.

The second point is that complexity reaches a point of diminishing return, costs escalate beyond what we’re willing to pay, and whole systems break as a result. With media, it’s not just that it’s simpler to make something that is compelling and gets mindshare. It’s that simpler access to “good enough” media (via the web) trumps more complex (or costly) access via movies or television. Consider the traffic in torrents of lower def but “good enough” copies of movies, television shows, record albums, etc. Or think of simpler paid access to slightly more lossy music/video via iTunes, or Hulu.

There’s more to talk about, like the social thing – we’re committing mindshare to online conversations that, before, we might have commmitted to passive consumption of television programming. But you get the drift – behaviors are changing online. And low-cost/free/good-enough is as entrenched in online culture as expensive/complex/high quality is entrenched in old media culture.

Times are changing. And I’m out of time, for the moment.

Foraging and surfing

I’ve often said that we don’t know enough about how peope behave online – e.g. how they read blogs or other web sites. Do we visit the same sites over and over again? Or do we surf, following links we stumble across as we wander, and now with pervasive social media, those that are posted on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.? More likely both – we have some sites we visit regularly, but we also bounce around a lot.

Behaviors are probably more complex than we think. Seth Godin writes that he learned, from Clay Shirky, of something called a Lévy flight: Example: “an animal that forages will hang out in a small area, looking for nuts or berries, then will realize it has used up all the likely sources in this spot. It will then head off in a random direction, walk many paces, and start foraging again.” The online version:

Someone discovers your site. They poke and prod and join and return and return again. Then they feel as though there’s no more benefit and they move on, surfing until they find another place to forage.

Godin calls this “a much more nuanced representation of consumer behavior than solely thinking about the ideas of brand loyalty or random web surfing.” But I’m enough of a nimrod to want to substitute the word human for consumer.