Posts about publicparts

FTC Fines Santa Claus Over COPPA Violations

WASHINGTON–Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz today announced a record fine against Santa Claus for violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

“Mr. Claus has flagrantly violated children’s privacy, collecting their consumer preferences for toys and also tracking their behavior so as to judge and maintain a data base of naughtiness and niceness,” Leibowitz said. “Worse, he has tied this data to personally identifiable information, including any child’s name, address, and age. He has solicited this information online, in some cases passing data to third parties so they may fulfill children’s wishes. According to unconfirmed reports, he has gone so far as to invade children’s homes in the dead of night. He has done this on a broad scale, unchallenged by government authorities for too long.”

Claus was fined $2 million and ordered to end any contact with children. Prior COPPA fines include $1 million against now-virtually-unknown social site Xanga, $400,000 against UMG Recordings, and $35,000 against notorious toymaker Etch-a-Sketch.

The FTC action follows similar complaints against Claus brought by European privacy authorities. European Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding has complained about Claus holding data on children outside of EU data-protection standards in North Pole server farms. German head of consumer protection Ilse Aigner has called for an investigation of Claus’ use of Google Street View in navigating his Christmas Eve visits. German Federal Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information Peter Schaar has demanded that Claus give children, naughty or nice, the right to be forgotten in his data base. And Thilo Weichert, head of the privacy protection office in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, demanded that German web sites take down any Facebook “Like” button referring to Claus.

Meanwhile, Canadian Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart has attempted to bring together an international coalition of privacy officers opposed to Claus’ practices. In California, Claus has been threatened with severe penalties for nonpayment of the state sales tax. And the UK has vowed that Claus will be detained and could face extradition should he set foot in any English chimneys on Christmas Eve.

Reaction to the FTC decision was mixed in Washington. Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry vowed to kill the Federal Trade Commission, relieved that he had finally recalled the final agency he had marked for death. Rival Newt Gingrich suggested that Claus apply for U.S. citizenship, “having contributed much to U.S. industry by stimulating greed at all ages; we need more Clauses and more spending to fix this Democrat-ruined economy.” Ron Paul suggested that Claus set up a Liberatarian nation at the North Pole and offered to run for office there. Herman Cain, whose candidacy remains on hold after allegations of sexual improprieties, said that he “always wondered why the old coot didn’t get in hot water for plopping kiddies on his lap; seemed a lot creepier than anything I ever did.” President Barack Obama refused comment.

From his North Pole headquarters, Claus said through a spokesman that he endeavored only to fulfill children’s dreams. “I regret that the world has come to this: treating any adult who wants to make a child happy as a dangerous stranger,” he said. “The problem with our modern world is not technology but fear, suspicion, and cynicism.” He vowed to continue his Christmas mission of joy. “What’s the worst they can do to me?” he asked, “cookie me?”

Contact: Elfelman Public Relations
Photo via Dreadcentral

Do-not-track hypocrisy

Sunday’s New York Times editorializes in favor of Do Not Track and other privacy legislation going through Congress and the Federal Trade Commission. Yet The New York Times itself makes much use of personal, private, and tracking information itself. Indeed, it requires tracking.

The editorial (my emphasis): “Congress should act on the F.T.C.’s recommendation to establish a system that would allow consumers to effectively opt out of all tracking of their online activities. There are other worthy proposals, including the administration’s call for limits on the collection of data about consumers online. Lawmakers have proposed about a dozen privacy bills this year alone. But with Congress stuck in a partisan rut, it is reassuring to see the F.T.C. at work.”

Now read The Times’ privacy policy (and highlights):

* If you subscribe to the print New York Times, the company will sell your name *and address* and other unspecified data to others. “If you are a print subscriber to The New York Times newspaper and subscribed either by mail, phone or online, we may exchange or rent your name and mailing address and certain other information, such as when you first subscribed to The New York Times (but not your e-mail address) with other reputable companies that offer marketing information or products through direct mail.” That’s not opt-in; it’s opt-out.

In Public Parts, I argue that privacy policies in old media have long been far worse than online. Magazines, newspapers, and other recipients of your media money have for years sold information about what you read and consume and who you are and where you live to large data-base companies and marketers. If a library or an online site did that, it would be shot. But The New York Times does that. Want to pass a law about that, Times?

* The New York Times requires that you use cookies. It decrees: “You will not be able to access certain areas of our Web sites, including NYTimes.com, if your computer does not accept cookies from us.” So what happens when Congress passes Do Not Track, Times?

In its explanation of cookies, The Times says: “Our registration system requires that you accept cookies from NYTimes.com in order to log in to our Web site. Cookies are not spyware, viruses or any other kind of malicious program. For best results, set your browser options to accept all cookies from NYTimes.com. You can use your browser options to clear the cookies later, if necessary.”

Precisely. You have many means now to get rid of cookies: You can turn them off, kill them at the end of every session or whenever you want, or open a private session (an “incognito” window in Chrome) that relays no data about you. Do Not Track is redundant. It’s political cynicism.

Oh, and The Times — which gathers more personally identifiable data about you than most any other newspaper — could not operate its paywall without cookies.

* Just like other online marketers, The Times uses cookies to target advertising. “The New York Times Home Delivery Web site also transmits non-personally identifiable Web site usage information about visitors to the servers of a reputable third party for the purpose of targeting our Internet banner advertisements on other sites. To do this, we use Web Beacons in conjunction with cookies provided by our third-party ad server on this site.” Would The Times outlaw this essential business behavior? This is how The Times earns its premium rates with branding advertisers.

* The Times hires a number of analytics companies to track your behavior, from the creepily named Audience Science to WebTrends for the web and from Localytics to the fluffily named Flurry for mobile.

* The Times logs what pages you see and uses that to recommend content.

* It logs your location if you use mobile applications.

* It allows third-party ad servers to place cookies on your computer and track your behavior.

Note, too, that The Wall Street Journal, which has been on a Reefer Madness high regarding privacy, also collects personally identifiable information and connects it to browsing history without users’ permission. More hypocrisy.

Mind you, I do not object to any of these tracking behaviors. They are, in my opinion, necessary to pay for the content we get from The Times and The Journal and much of the rest of media. They are used to reduce noise, repetition, and irrelevant advertising and content. They are all-in-all harmless and have been demonized by privacy’s regulatory-industrial complex and now even by The Times. If The Times gets its wish and Do Not Track passes, enabling too many consumers “to effectively opt out of all tracking of their online activities,” then I fear we will get less content or more paywalls or both.

I also argue that media and marketing companies have done a godawful job of letting their customers know what information they were gathering and what they were doing with it and how consumers benefited. They long ago should have learned from Amazon, which reveals what it collects and what results and enables customers to see and control and correct that information (which also only gives Amazon yet more valuable data). So it’s their own damned fault they’ve been demonized, opening the door to the cynical pols and bureaucrats who proposed Do Not Track — and to their allies, such as The Times editorialists, who argue on the basis of nonspecific emotions rather than tangible facts about harm and consequences.

Occupy #OccupyWallStreet

It is time for Twitter and its citizens to take back #OccupyWallStreet.

I say that with no disrespect to the efforts and sacrifices of the people who have taken the hashtag literally and moved into Wall Street and cities around the world, confronting the institutions — financial, government, and media — they blame for our crisis.

To the contrary, I say it’s time to carry their work back to our virtual society, where it began, to expand the movement so Michael Bloomberg and his downtown goombas and mayors and cops cannot think that they are able throw it away in a garbage truck; so banks cannot hope to return to their old ways; so media cannot think that it can dismiss #OWS as fringe (see the BBC and the FT each calling the movement “anti-capitalist” when many of us say the real goal is to reclaim capitalism from its crooks).

It is much bigger than the scores of occupants in each city. But that still raises the question of what “it” is.

That is where I believe Twitter can grow and give shape to the movement. There we can answer the question, What are we mad as hell about (should that be a hashtag debate: #why…)? There we can organize no end of irritants for institutions (we can play whack-a-mole with the banks’ rip-off fees and leave them as customers). There we can hold politicians to account.

Some have argued that #OWS will not grow up as a movement until it becomes an institution and has leadership and spokesmen and unified goals and messages and even candidates for office.

Heaven forbid.

#OccupyWallStreet, in my view, is anti-institutional in that it is fighting institutional power and corruption and in that it is not an institution itself. I believe the value of #OWS is that it enables us to say how and why we’re angry and to make the powerful come to us and beg us for forgiveness, not to join their games.

#OccupyWallStreet, the hashtag revolution, establishes us, the public, as an entity to be reckoned with. It is a tool of publicness.

So I support #OWS becoming less literal — let Michael J Bloomberg tear down the tents — and more amorphous, more difficult to define and dismiss and shut down.

#OccupyWallStreet started on Twitter and spread to the streets. Now it’s time come back online and spread further.

Why are you mad as hell? And what are you going to do about it? That is #OWS’ challenge to us all.

Debate on privacy: the fuller text

The Wall Street Journal today publishes excerpts from a debate among me, danah boyd, Stewart Baker, and Christopher Soghoian about privacy (and publicness). They had us write to specific lengths, so I was surprised that they didn’t publish the entire conversation, even online. So if you can bear more, here are my complete bits; I’ll let me fellow debaters post their own.

Later: Here are danah boyd’s complete answers.

Part I:

Privacy is important. It deserves protection. And it is receiving protection from no end of self-appointed watchdogs, legislators, regulators, consultants, companies, and chief privacy officers: an entire regulatory/industrial complex. Privacy is in good hands.

It’s publicness I worry about: our corresponding right and newfound ability to use this Gutenberg press we all now own—the internet—to speak, assemble, act, connect, and collaborate in a more open society. I fear that that if we over-regulate privacy, managing only to the worst-case, we could lose sight of the benefits of publicness, the value of sharing.

Our new sharing industry—led by Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, Foursquare, blogs, and new services launched every day—is premised on an innate human desire to connect. Eight hundred million people can’t be wrong. That’s how many people use Facebook alone to post more than a billion artifacts of their lives every day. These aren’t privacy services. They are social services.

But the private/public discussion to date has focused almost exclusively on privacy and worry. New technologies that cause disruption have often led to collective concern about privacy. After the invention of the press, the earliest published authors fretted about having their thoughts associated with their names, set down permanently and distributed widely. The first serious discussion of a legal right to privacy in the United States did not come until 1890, spurred by the invention of the portable Kodak camera and the rise of the penny press. For a time, President Teddy Roosevelt banned “kodakers” from Washington parks.

Now we are at the dawn of the greatest technological disruption since the press and it brings corresponding concern. It is well to worry about what could go wrong so we may guard against it, to assure that companies and especially government do not surveil us to our detriment.

But I ask us to also recognize and guard the publicness our new tools empower. I hope we engage in another discussion about the principles of an open society: the right to connect, speak, assemble and act; privacy as an ethic; the call for our institutions to become transparent by default and secret by necessity (now it is reversed); the value of maintaining the public square; and the need to safeguard the people’s net from tyrants, censors, private control, and the unintended consequences of well-meaning but premature regulation.

Privacy has its protectors. What of publicness?

Part II:

Privacy legislation and regulation are awash with unintended consequences.

Germany’s head of consumer protection, Ilse Aigner, surely believes she is guarding citizens’ privacy when she urges them to exercise their Verpixelungsrecht, their so-called right to have photos of buildings taken from public streets pixilated in Google Street View. But she sets a precedent that could affect the free-speech rights of journalists and citizens. She diminishes the public square at the public’s cost.

The U.S. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act says sites may not use information specific to a child under 13 without written (that is, faxed, scanned, or videoconferenced) parental consent. The result: Children learn to lie about their age. And young people are likely the worst-served sector of society online. That is a tragedy of lost opportunity.

The Do Not Track legislation making its way through Congress threatens ad tracking and cookies. This newspaper demonizes them as “intrusive” and “intensive surveillance.” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz denounces media that use them as “cyberazzi.” Though most of this data is anonymous. Taken too far, Do Not Track could devalue online media, resulting in less content, more pay walls, and a less-informed populace. The road to ignorance may be paved with good intentions.

Part III:

Stipulated: Anonymity, pseudonymity, and even nicknames need to be protected for the vulnerable, dissidents in danger, whistleblowers, and even game players, for the sake of their speech.

That said, real people and real relationships have proven to add value, accountability, and civility to online discourse.

Stipulated: The advertising, media, and sharing industries have done a dreadful job being open about what they track, why, and what benefits accrue to their users. The mess they’re in is much of their own making.

Even so, online tracking is being demonized in shrill fear-mongering (Chris’ is but one example), which doesn’t acknowledge that most of this data—unlike the consumer data bases of preinternet marketing—do not contain names and addresses. There is little discussion of harm or benefit, only vague fear.

Stipulated: We need to come together as one society to perform certain functions, such as voting and taxation.

But we are not a mass. The myth of the grand shared experience of media—all of us hanging on Uncle Walter’s every pause—was an unfortunate, half-century-long aberration. Democracy should be a cacophony of ideas and perspectives. Thanks to our new tools of publicness, we are regaining the power to create and find our own publics.

Identity can aid connections. Tracking can produce relevance. Personalization can reduce noise. These are benefits of the net.

Our notion of nations

Consider: I a matter of a year, the leaders of Italy, Greece, Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia have all been ousted not in the normal course of governance and not at the polls. Who’s in charge there? In the Middle EAst, it’s the people, at last (but can they retain power?). In Europe, its bondholders and neighboring nations. Meanwhile, in Spain and the #occupywallstreet movements, disgruntled, disorganized citizens are making their voices heard. In Iceland they’re rewriting their constitution using Facebook.

What is becoming of our notion of nations?

In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Georges Papandreou’s short-lived threat to hold a plebiscite over the EU’s insistence of austerity as a condition of bail from fiscal jail set off a debate among the paper’s editor, Frank Schirrmacher; the esteemed political philosopher Jürgen Habermas, and economic writer Rainer Hank.

Far be it from me to translate the language or its subtleties and ironies, but it’s clear that they are debating who’s in charge in Europe: government? bond-holders and bankers? the people? Hank notes that “the governments of Europe are under dual supervision.” He questions whether Europe is facing “dictatorship of the people versus dictatorship of financial markets” or a question of “democracy versus rule of law.”

At the same time I (tried to) read all that, Martin Gurri wrote a most eloquent review of and rumination on Public Parts (his son, Adam, happened to do likewise). Gurri père raises many thoughtful points about the value of publicness and its support of trust. I recommend reading both posts. But for purposes of this discussion, I want to focus on Martin Gurri’s trepidation about government. To quote:

In the existential struggle between the public and the old structures of authority, Jarvis is a participant, not an observer.  At times, he makes it sound as if the public can bypass authority and strike out on its own.  The larger argument of Public Parts, however, is that the conflict can only be resolved when authority regains the public’s trust by aligning its practices with those of the new information environment.  Though optimistic in tone, Jarvis doesn’t directly venture an opinion about the cost of this transformation, possibly because he views it as inevitable.  In the manner of a conqueror he proclaims, “Resistance is futile.”

It’s an easy guess that the collision with the public will transform the old institutions.  The question is the social and political pain involved:  whether the process will resemble gradual evolution or, as I suspect, an extinction event.  (There are those who theorize that such a cataclysm has already struck the global economy.)

Because of their immense inherited weight, business and government have a vested interest in inertia.  In this context, resistance may be futile in the long term, but rational for the moment.  As an old government hand, I can attest to the accuracy of Jarvis’ portrayal of the bureaucracy – but he fails to note the profound emotional investment in existing institutions by the people who inhabit them.  Even the most up-to-date bureaucrats, in my experience, will resist the advance of the public until retirement day.
Bending the massive structures of authority to the ideals promoted in Public Parts may well be impossible without a traumatic fracturing of the status quo.

And a traumatic fracturing of the state itself?

That is the question I want to raise here: Are we seeing such cracks begin to open before our eyes?

Is Europe’s crisis of economics and government structure — even of the legitimacy and power of government — a signal?

Is the Arab Spring and its ability to tear down government without a clear notion of what will be built in its place an opportunity to rethink government?

Is Iceland as a startup nation a legitimate effort to show that course?

Did Spain attempt to organize a revolution without organization?

Is #occupywallstreet an effort to reassert the authority of the people outside the structure of politics and government? (Some say they make a mistake not becoming overtly political with candidates and platforms. I am coming to believe they are right to stand outside government and demand attention and reform from that distance. Its platform perspective might be: ‘We don’t want to get any on us.’)

Will we question the idea of what a nation is? Are Greece and Italy still sovereign nations when bankers can overthrow their governments and neighbors can dictate the terms of governance? Are the hashtag rebels of Spain then the U.S. then other nations establishing a new society (albeit one even more unsure in its structure than Egypt’s and Tunisia’s next forms)?

Says Gurri Senior:

Particularly unsettling are the prospects for government.  The extraordinary outcomes today demanded from politics, Paul Ormerod has shown, lie beyond the reach of human power.  We simply don’t know how to “solve” unemployment or inequality.  The more we expect to impose such outcomes on a complex world, the deeper our disenchantment will be.  Transparency and citizen participation, in such circumstances, will only aggravate the friction between a triumphant public and its failed institutions.  Modern government, outwardly so imposing, will be revealed in its nakedness to be a feeble and incapable organ, unable to rise to the hopes of the citizenry.  The consequence is likely to be turbulence for every ruling principle, including liberal democracy.

Gurri might have begun wondering whether I went to far. Then he went even farther.

Dear Verizon,

I have a simple, helpful suggestion for you:

Put your technician assignments online for customers to see so we can judge when we need to be home and so we don’t get mad at you for having to stay home all day.

Our internet went out after the storms in New Jersey. We were lucky: We lost big trees but they only scraped our house and didn’t take out lines. We lost power and heat but I managed to get the last hotel rooms in the area so we had warm beds. Our power was restored after about 36 hours (many around us in the state still don’t have it) and with power we also got our phone and TV back. But our internet didn’t return. Not so bad. Troubleshooting over the phone with my wife for an hour yielded nothing, so we were told we had to have a visit. But the storm damage was widespread and Verizon was going to take two weeks to come. Internet being lifeblood to me — imagine me Twitterless — I appealed for help to @verizonsupport and they quickly and nicely gave us an appointment after only a few days. That came yesterday.

We were told we were to be the first appointment of the day. So my wife didn’t go out to restock the refrigerator, which was high priority. She waited. She waited 10 hours for the technician to come.

When he came, he said that we weren’t first on his schedule; he had an install, and we know from the effort that went into ours that that takes time. Then his dispatcher inserted another appointment before us. That’s fine, of course. Things are crazy in New Jersey right now. We don’t mind waiting. We just want to know how long to wait.

So here’s my suggestion, Verizon: Go to the Apple store and see the screen that tells customers where they are in line. When you see you’re No. 6, you know you have time to duck out to Starbucks. Apple doesn’t guarantee an exact time — and I know you hate doing that. But Apple gives us enough information so we can know what’s going on and make our own judgments.

Now go to Continental Airlines, look up flight status, and see that they give fliers the complete stand-by list for seats and upgrades. You can see how many seats are open and how many people are ahead of you so you can judge your odds. Again, they give us information. There’s no reason not to. I wrote about this in Public Parts as a simple example of a company being more open. It improves our experience. It saves gate agents from getting the same anxious questions over and over. (I hope this nice practice isn’t lost in Continental’s merger with United.)

So, Verizon, why not open up and simply let customers see a list of how many appointments a technician has and even where they are so we can judge how long it would take to arrive. Give more information when it’s helpful — e.g., that installs take a few hours. When things change, send an update, just as airlines now send SMS or email updates on flight status. You’re a communications company; I’ll bet you can do that well. If we’d had that yesterday, my wife could have spent the morning outside the house (and I wouldn’t feel so guilty for being in New York all day).

When the technician arrived, he was very good and spent time solving our problems with the internet and TVs. He replaced our router.

That leads to another suggestion: Wouldn’t it have been cheaper to send us a router? We’d have had it before the technician came, which means you could have saved the expense of our visit at a really crushed time. Worst case: It wouldn’t have fixed the problem and the appointment would have stood; the only loss would be the shipping cost.

These might seem like minor irritations to customers. But so was Bank of America’s $5 debit card fee. And look what happened to them. In this post, I attributed the bank’s retreat to a young woman’s online petition. But others perhaps rightly credited #occupywallstreet with stirring up productive anger at the banks and winning this small but symbolic and gratifying victory against them at a time of low trust and high contempt for banks in this country.

Friendly advice: You and the other telephone and cable companies could be in a similar boat. No surprise to you that there’s pent-up anger about you. In Public Parts, I tell this story about Frank Eliason, who started Comcast’s @comcastcares — a model for the very helpful @verizonsupport (he later came to New York to work for a bank):

“He was candid about Comcast’s problems, with a rare sense of corporate humor. I watched him at a Salesforce.com event when he came onstage and said, “Customer service . . . . We’re well-known for service, aren’t we . . . . C’mon.” Pause for laugh. “We’re actually working very hard to improve the customers’ service.”

Now see Susan Crawford’s excellent piece for the Harvard Law and Policy Review, out this week, arguing that we are faced with a cable/phone duopoly over our internet access. It is a call to action for regulation of you. It is also, possibly, a focal point for anger about how we customers are imprisoned with our one or two choices.

So beware the seemingly small things — $5 debit cards, 10 hours of thumb-twiddling — can become rallying points for anger and organization against you. We, the community of customers, now have the tools to organize and be heard.

I’m grateful I got my appointment yesterday; thank you @verizonsupport. I’m grateful I got good service from your technician; thank you, Michael. I’m grateful to be using my internet connection at home right now to write this. I’ve also mellowed since Dell Hell. So I want to be helpful.

My helpful suggestion is: open up. If you know information that could be helpful to customers, share it — because now we have the tools that enable you to do that.

P.S. Yesterday was perhaps not the best day to notify us that our rates are going up.

Power to the public

Two good, anecdotal illustrations of the power that our tools of publicness give to us, the public.

* Bank of America customer Molly Katchpole collected 300,000 names in an online petition against the bank’s ripoff $5 debit card charge and beat down the behemoth. True, the banks have been guilty of greater ripoffs, but this is still a victory for the customers as a community over the corporation.

It’s one matter for individual customers to resort to blogs and Twitter (as I have) to get satisfaction from companies. It’s another for customers to be able to organize without organizations. Before the net, customers couldn’t have created their own instant network of protest. The net empowers them.

So now companies don’t just need to hire people to watch Twitter and blogs and put out fires. Now they have to fear that their abusive policies will become the subject of large-scale, instant protests. Any company whose business model still depends on holding us prisoner to its policies — banks, cable companies, telcos, airlines, insurance companies — had best learn a lesson.

* And bravo to the kid who recorded and posted the psycho rant of a high-school football coach in suburban Memphis. Yes, some might argue that the coach’s privacy was violated. I say ridiculous. The coach thought he could get away with abusing the children in his care behind closed doors, but now, thanks to a phone and the net, the children can fight back by making his abuses public. Even the coach appears to have learned a lesson.

Book as process, book as byproduct, book as conversation

Nieman Lab’s Megan Garber wrote a brilliant post about the nature of books and conversation using as illustration a conversation about my book. It is, as Jay Rosen said, too good to summarize. So please do go read it.

I love Garber’s piece not just because she said that “90 percent of Morozov’s criticisms are wildly unfair,” referring to a so-called review of my book. I love it because Garber delivered the most serious criticism of my book to date:

The precise thing that makes idea-driven books so valuable to readers — their immersive qualities, the intimate, one-on-one relationship they facilitate between authors and readers — also make them pretty lousy as actual sharers of ideas. Books don’t go viral. And that’s largely because the thing that makes books lucrative to authors and publishers — their ability to restrain ideas, to wall them off from the non-book-buying world — is antithetical to virality. How can books be expected to share ideas when the very point of their existence is containment?

I wrote a book about sharing. But a book is a bad form for sharing.

The book, Garber said, is “designed to advance books within the marketplace, rather than the marketplace of ideas. It aims at publicity rather than publicness, at selling objects rather than propelling the arguments they contain.”

Garber is right. I’ve confessed my hypocrisy in writing both my books on other grounds: I didn’t make them digital, clickable, correctable, linkable…. I did it to get paid, edited, promoted, and distributed (though with the closing of Borders, that last function becomes less valuable). Garber points out as mitigation that I had shared my ideas about publicness on my blog before I wrote the book.

“The professor has been preaching publicness for years — at Buzzmachine, in his Guardian column, at conferences, on TV, on Twitter, on the radio, on his Tumblr. If you follow Jeff Jarvis, you follow Public Parts. You’ve seen his thoughts on publicness take shape over time. The book that resulted from that public process — the private artifact — is secondary. It is the commercial result of a communal endeavor.”

She’s being too easy on me. While I wrote the book, I did share and discuss many of the ideas in it on my blog. That can be a form of collaboration and peer review. But I didn’t do it nearly enough, as far as I’m concerned. I was so busy researching, writing, and editing the book that I neglected the blog.

As Garber notes, I say in Public Parts that I should try to make my next project — if I choose to undertake one — different.

At the end of Public Parts, Jarvis mentions that his next project may not be a book at all, but rather a book-without-a-book: a Godinesque series of public events held both in person and online. “The book,” Jarvis writes, “if there is one, would be a by-product and perhaps a marketing tool for more events.”

The book, if there is one. The book, a by-product. Imagine the possibilities.

I’m still working on what that could be. So let me begin the process and outline my early thinking here to hear what you think.

Start with Kevin Kelly’s 2006 essay in The New York Times Magazine arguing that authors would come to support themselves with performance — and John Updike’s appalled reaction to this “pretty grisly scenario.” I’m not suggesting that authors become merely actors after their books are done.

I’m suggesting, as Garber does, that talks, events, symposia, blogs, hangouts… — discussion with smart people in any form — should come before the book. The process becomes the product; the book (if there is one) is a byproduct.

To take an example: I’ve been wanting to explore the impact of one simple idea, that technology now leads to efficiency over growth. I wrote a post about one aspect of that here and here as well as here and here. The conversation was amazing in its intelligence, perspective, and generosity. It became even better when Y Combinator founder Paul Graham posted it to Hacker News with a challenge, asking what makes this revolution (digital v. industrial) different. Amazing replies ensued. It took me many hours to go through it all, taking many notes.

That made me decide to propose this topic as a talk to South by Southwest. If accepted, that will give me a deadline for research. But I want — no, need — more conversation in the meantime.

That leads me to an idea for a new business. I don’t really want to start it or run it; I just wish it existed so I could use it.

It is time to disrupt the conference and speaking businesses and give some measure of control back to speakers (also known as authors) and their publics (formerly known, as Jay Rosen would say, as audiences). I hope for a way to support the work of authors and thinkers — support it with conversation, attention, and collaboration as well as money.

So imagine this: Authors decide to hold their own event. If you have the brand and popularity of, say, Seth Godin (or, in the sales arena, Jeffrey Gitomer), you can gather a large roomful of fans without effort; each does. But folks like me don’t have their brand or promotional power. So let’s say I get together with another one or two authors and we propose an event in which we discuss what we’re working on.

Kickstarter would seem to be an ideal platform to find out whether there is sufficient demand to support such a gathering, at least to get started. If enough folks sign up, the authors can rent a venue: no risk. The startup I wish for would handle logistics for a fee. It could also be a platform for groups to get together, organizing conferences without conference organizers.

The event, in my view, isn’t speeches to audiences so much as conversations. The author needs to bring value: a presentation, a talk, a set of ideas or challenges. But it’s the conversation I crave, to develop and further challenge ideas and gather perspectives. The event could be streamed for a larger public. It could be videoed and shared online for continued exchange via blogs, Google+, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, et al.

Note that this isn’t about containing ideas but sharing them. That’s what Garber and I both want.

Is there a book? Why should there be? Because a book can memorialize the ideas and research that comes out of this process. It can bring the discipline that the form — and a good editor, like mine — can demand. It can spread the ideas yet farther — to the many more people who couldn’t be bothered joining in the process and the conversation. It can make the ideas last longer. (In Public Parts, I quote Gutenberg scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein pointing out that Gutenberg’s Bible turns out to be a much longer lasting repository of data than a floppy disk.)

If there’s a book, is it printed? The likelihood of that decreases by the day. So if it is just electronic, then it can change form, including video from the process; photos and graphics to illustrate points; and permalinks to any part of the book to support conversation on the net.

So now we arrive back that the book I apologized for not writing in WWGD? — digital, clickable, linkable, correctable, updateable, part of a conversation. There are issues: Conversations can be invaded by trolls. There’s no economic certainty. We’ll make missteps.

But can we get closer to Garber’s ideal? Well, we’ll know it when we see it. But if we try this route, we now have a standard to judge it against: the one Garber sets in her great post.

Our assumptions about information itself are shifting, reshaping “the news” from a commodity to a community, from a product to a process. The same changes that have disrupted the news industry will, inevitably, disrupt the book industry; Public Parts hints at what might come of the disruption. Books as community. Books as conversation. Books as ideas that evolve over time — ideas that shift and shape and inspire — and that, as such, have the potential of viral impact.

Can books go viral? Garber asks. Maybe, if they’re allowed to be more than books.