Posts about economist

Economist debate on sharing: Round II

Here’s the second of three rounds in the Economist debate on the benefits of sharing. This is my response to Andrew Keen’s opener.

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Being public, I shall rely on the public to respond for me:

In a discussion on Google+, Google News creator Krishna Bharat writes: “The thrust of Keen’s argument seems to be that connectedness induces peer pressure for conformity which kills diversity…. This is a specious argument because connectedness/proximity does not induce commonality. Never has and never will. Otherwise, Jerusalem would be one homogenous happy culture with Palestinians and Israelis living in proximity…. What connectedness does induce though is a heightened awareness of how other people are and think, and ultimately empathy. That is certainly not a bad thing.”

Commenter Kevin Bonham goes the next step: “I think the ability to share actually increases the ability of radicals and new thinkers to flourish. In a world where innovators are dependent on traditional power brokers to spread their ideas, many great ideas could be lost for lack of exposure….”

But in the debate here at The Economist, commenter czlee raises a challenge: “We are only ever protective of privacy when we fear that someone else will pass judgment…. In order for the proposer to hold his line, I believe that he must also advocate a less judgmental society.”

That is indeed my hope and, back at Google+, Mr. Bonham presents the best exhibition for optimism: “For hundreds of years, gay people were in the closet, isolated and alone. As soon as they started being public, other gay people realized they weren’t alone, and that they had allies, and a movement got started.” No one should be forced out of a closet, but those who had the courage to stand out and challenge bigots and bullies used their power of publicness to disarm stigmas.

At Google+ Daniel McCully responds to the question I raised about regulating technology, arguing that doing so would “just hold back progress…. The cost benefit comes once the world has changed and people have discovered new ways to work in that world. Even the radio was once seen as a bad thing and a form of piracy. You don’t stop change, you adapt to it.”

Agreed. What we’re experiencing now is an effort to negotiate new norms for our new reality. It’s hardly the first time. The first serious discussion of a legal right to privacy in the United States did not come until 1890. The reason: the invention of the Kodak camera, which led to a similar moral panic about privacy, with The New York Times decrying “fiendish kodakers,” President Teddy Roosevelt outlawing kodaking in Washington parks, and legislators ready to require opt-in permission from anyone photographed in public. We negotiated our norms and cameras don’t scare us anymore. But now a new technology does.

“We are all in uncharted territory of openness,” Brit Koehnig writes, asking us to note that where “there is no Facebook, there is no freedom.” That’s not causation, of course, but it is correlation, revealing that fear of openness is a trait of tyranny.

Economist commenter Voice of Pragmatism points out that “this paper itself recently ran an article about the effect of blogging in the field of Economics, partially crediting the recent rise of heterodox views such as the Austrian School and Chartalism to increased usage of social media…. [T]o argue that unconventional thought is stifled, when it is far easier than ever before to connect with people who share your atypical viewpoint, is absurd.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

As for the unscientific and thus quite meaningless voting here, my opponent attempted to marshal his meager Twitter forces to stuff the ballot box. I responded by asking my followers on the podcast This Week in Google and in Google+ and Facebook to vote their conscience–and my side. In minutes, a 37% vote in favor turned into 70%. There’s another benefit of being public and having a public.

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Oh, and if you’d like to vote — for my side, please — you can do it here.

Economist debate on sharing

The Economist has just launched a debate between me and Andrew Keen — and you — on the proposition that society benefits when we share information online.” Here is my opening statement; follow the link for Andrew’s and the discussion:

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We are sharing for good reason—not because we are insane, exhibitionistic, or drunk. We are sharing because, at last, we can, and we find benefit in it. Sharing is a social and generous act: it connects us, it establishes and improves relationships, it builds trust, it disarms strangers and stigmas, it fosters the wisdom of the crowd, it enables collaboration, and it empowers us to find, form and act as publics of our own making.

For individuals, sharing is a choice; that is the essence of privacy. Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, told me that before the net, we had “privacy through obscurity”. We had little chance to be public because we had little access to the tools of publicness: the press, the stage, the broadcast tower (their proprietors were last century’s 1%). Today, we have the opportunity to create, share and connect, and 845m people choose to do so on Facebook alone. Mr Zuckerberg says he is not changing their nature; he is enabling it.

I shared my prostate cancer—and, thus, my malfunctioning penis—online. Nothing bad came of this, only good: information, support from friends (who could not have known had I not been public) and the opportunity to inspire other men to be tested. Let me emphasise: that was my choice; no one should be forced to publicise their life.

But imagine if we did feel free to share our health data. Think of the correlations and possibly causes and cures we could find. Why don’t we? We fear losing insurance (though insurers already demand our data) or jobs (that is a matter of discrimination to handle legislatively).

Most of all, we fear stigma—though in this day and age why should anyone be ashamed of being sick? In the tension between secrecy and openness, these are the kinds of benefits we should be considering, balancing them with the risks as we adapt society’s norms to new realities and new opportunities.

Our institutions should share for different reasons. The wise company is opening up to build direct relationships with customers, to inoculate itself against the dreaded viral meme, and even to collaborate on the creation of products (see Local Motors’ cars, designed with customers).

Government must learn to share its work and knowledge with its citizens. It must become open by default and secret by necessity (and there are necessary secrets in relation to security, diplomacy, criminal investigations and citizens’ privacy). Today, government is instead secret by default and open by force (that of the journalist or the leaker).

If WikiLeaks has taught us nothing else, it is that no secret is safe and that too much government information has been classified as secret (consider the role of leaks in the Tunisian uprising and the subsequent Arab spring).

Openness is proving to be profoundly disruptive. When we share what we pay for goods, we ruin price opacity and retailers’ margins. When we share our frustration with government, we can start revolutions. This is why institutions—news, media, corporate, government, academic—often resist the draw of openness and fear its impact. And that is why we are seeing a sudden rise in efforts to regulate our greatest tool of publicness, the net, under the guises of piracy, privacy, security and decency.

Too much of the conversation about sharing today revolves around risks—risks to privacy (which does need protection, and it has many new protectors) and risks to intellectual property (though media companies need to learn that controlling scarcity will become an increasingly difficult business model to execute). We also need to have a discussion about the benefits of sharing and the tools that enable it, so we can protect their potential.

Oh, to be the Economist

When newspaper people in the U.S. aren’t wishing they were the Wall Street Journal – “well, they can charge” – they aspire to be The Economist.

Dream on.

I just got email announcing The Economist Group’s latest financials.

* Operating profit up 26% to £56m
* Revenue up 17% to £313m
* Full year dividend of 97.3p per share, an increase of 8%
* The Economist’s worldwide circulation grew 6.4% to 1,390,780 (July-December 2008 ABC). It was named Magazine of the Year by Advertising Age and topped Adweek’s Hot List for the second year running
*’s performance has been strong, driven by a strategy to make it a place for intelligent debate; advertising revenue is up 29% and page views 53%

The good news is that quality still sells.

The Economist is to the rest of the news industry as Apple is to Google. In What Would Google Do?, I argue that Apple is the unGoogle. It violates practically every one of the 40 rules I set out. But it succeeds. Why? It’s that good, uniquely good. There’s room for one such company, probably, in any industry – and that spot isn’t always filled (name me the Apple or The Economist of phone companies, airlines, cable companies, or retail).

In news, the Economist is the exception that proves the rules. It doesn’t have the individual voices and brands that succeed elsewhere on the internet; it has a single, institutional voice (but a charming one). In a sense, it’s a general-interest publication in the age of specialization (and every other general-interest product, from Time to the metro daily is failing). It has built a strong online product but it’s still not known for that; it’s a magazine (pardon me, newspaper) that still relies on and succeeds in print.

The problem for the rest of the industry is that they can’t all break the rules as The Economist does because they’re just not that good. You have to be great to the The Economist or Apple and if you fall short, you fall all the way. And staying great is constant work.

I was at The Economist’s offices in New York last week for lunch with editors. Don’t think that they are resting on their laurels. They, too, are trying to understand The Economist’s role on the new media age (my advice: they have just about the smartest crowd anywhere and I hope the company asks how that crowd can be empowered to connect, share, and create). But it’s a nice perch from which to be wondering what to do next. While other publications are looking for a limb to grab onto as they fall, The Economist is looking for the next higher branch.