Posts about davos07

Each his own Davos

When I was at Davos (OK, I’m place-dropping), I sat in on a brainstorming about how to keep the connections we make there alive the rest of the year. It’s hard. Davos is a safe world: Those who are invited there with you are there for a reason and so it’s much easier to strike up a conversation and exchange a business card than it is down off the mountain. It was hard to figure out how to extend that.

But lately it has occurred to me that Facebook gives us each our own Davos. We have control over or identities and communities. We befriend people we know. We use it to make new connections. It feels remarkably similar. Just without the snow. And Bono.

Davos07: My big conclusion

Perhaps the most important ‘ding’ moment I had at Davos was that the powerful are, no surprise, one step behind in their understanding of the true significance of the internet: They think it is all about individual action when, in truth, it’s about collective action. And so they don’t yet see that the internet will shift power even more than they realize.

The powerful at Davos are just starting to talk about the internet and individual empowerment; we heard that often up in the Alps from media (this has become editors’ cant), leaders in politics (like the U.K.’s Gordon Brown and the EU’s Viviane Reding), business (Bill Gates), and even technology (Gates, again). They are not alone; we have heard this for quite a while back down on earth. And it’s certainly true that the internet enables each of us to find the information that matters to us, to publish what we think, and do what we want. But that is only a step along the way to the fate of society after the internet.

The internet is more about collective action. It is about connections. It gives us the power to find each other, to join together, to coalesce around issues, ideas, products, desires, and activities as never before, leaping over all borders, real and cultural. That is the historic progression of power that we are witnessing. That is what we heard from the people who truly understand this mechanism because they are building it: Caterina Fake and Stuart Butterfield of Flickr, Chad Hurley of YouTube, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. At Davos, these pioneers didn’t contradicted the machers when they said that the internet is about individualism; on that plane, they were talking past each other. But as I sat down to make my notes about what I learned at Davos, this is what hit me between the eyes.

In media terms, I said at Davos and here on the blog that we have seen a small-scale version of this progression:
1. First, big media let us interact with them, about their stuff.
2. Then big media beg us to give them our stuff.
3. Now we realize that our stuff is ours — not user-generated content for the big guys — and we expect them to come to us.

It’s a distributed world, but I also said at Davos and on the blog that that doesn’t just mean big media can distribute its stuff to us in new ways; it means that all our stuff makes up the corpus of media, that we have the means of creation (bless my Mac and WordPress), marketing (that is, linking), and now distribution (thank you, YouTube). So the wise media macher will figure out how to try to enable people to create and share their stuff, not just big media’s, how to get into the middle of the conversation that’s already occurring– and not just start those conversations, which they still think is their role.

In political and societal terms, this means that institutions themselves are — like media — disaggregated and protean. I sat next to a veteran magazine editor at a dinner one night as he lamented the loss of institutional power and feared the rise of anarchy. Ah, but that’s what you might conclude in the face of the internet if you think it’s all about individualism, about each of us going our own way. If you realize that the internet is, instead, about connections and collective actions, you come to see that institutions will reform, that they will become fluid and ad hoc, like the parliamentary system of multiple parties joining in coalitions to rule. Now we can form our own coalitions to reach the critical mass still needed to be heard and to act. (See my Guardian column about the political essence of the internet, inspired by the Euston Manifesto.)

This editor’s fear of individual anarchy is a corollary to the argument that some societies — China and the Middle East and parts of Africa and, not long ago, Latin America — are not ready for democracy because they will collapse into anarchy without the power of their paternal institutions. I find this deeply offensive, for I strongly believe that every individual on earth has the right to self-determination. And what that means is not murdering in the streets — as, indeed, we see in Iraq today. What that truly means is gathering together into a society if, yes, the conditions allow, if there is the means to assure the security that allows this to happen. Critical mass will rise and a just society — the kind of society we all want — will not allow the tyranny of a minority or, in the case of a dictator, the minority of one. Society is balance and the internet is a new balancer.

So we see a similar path as in media:
1. The powerful realize they have no choice but to let you speak (even in China and the Middle East).
2. The powerful are forced to listen.
3. The powerful will realize that this isn’t just about mutual discussion but mutual decision.
Gordon Brown made noises like that. Whether he means it, we will see when he comes to power. The same for Hillary Clinton and her talk about conversation as campaign.

In business terms, of course, the internet allows the customer to finally, truly be in charge. I’ve written about that often enough.

And in technology terms, I believe, the future is not about establishing social networks as walled playgrounds but instead realizing that the internet is the social network. And so the question is how to enable that, how — in Zuckerberg’s term — to find an elegant organization for what is happening there already.

That is the job of media, government, business, and technology: to enable us to make better connections, to set the conditions for our collaboration. But this will frighten them more than it has already. For individuals don’t seem threatening on their own. But coalitions? Now that’s scary for the powerful. And the powerful don’t yet realize what’s happening. As Jackie Ashley said in a Guardian column — with which I otherwise have a few disagreements — inspired by Brown et al’s embrace of bloggers at Davos:

So when politicians and tycoons excitedly echo one another in hailing the new democracy of the internet, and promise that it is upending the old order, a little scepticism is required. If they really thought they were about to be overthrown by bloggers, would they sound quite so cheerful about it?

Exactly. This is the best indication that they don’t yet comprehend the impact of the internet — they don’t, as we say, get it. Oh, they’ve come a distance from their old ways; they realize they can’t dictate to all of us anymore. They know they have to do a better job of at least appearing to listen. But the realization that the internet is really the means for us to gang up on them hasn’t fully dawned on them yet. In that sense, I’ll bet that my new Davos pal Michael Dell is ahead of the rest, for he faced the gang, the coalescing critical mass of connections that the internet enabled.

So let them think that interactivity and social networks are ways for us to amuse ourselves while they still wield the power. They will wake up one day and realize they no longer own the world and can no longer look down at it from the top of the mountain. See Alan Rusbridger on one of the Davos media sessions, where the head of what can still be called the most powerful journalistic voice in the world looked up to find himself facing a just-out-of-college kid who reportedly turned down $1.5 billion for his company and who understands this new world in his soul; it’s not the money that should make the moguls jealous but that understanding. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook explained to the media moguls that the job of media — and, for that matter, government, business, and technology — is to bring people together to find distributed and elegant solutions to their problems. That is not web 3.0. That’s society 2.1. And we’ve only just begun.

Davos07: Conversation post mortem

A few personal thoughts on the Davos Conversation project I was involved in (I helped create it; Daylife produced it; I blogged for it).

It was a start.

Did this truly open up the conversation in Davos? No, of course not. Davos is still a mountain retreat for the privileged few (see Ben Hammersley quoted in the post below). But from what I can see, the gathering was more open this year than in prior years. How far will they go? Only time will tell. How far should it go?

There was a lot of talk about the conversation at Davos, about the internet and openness and shifting control. But the powerful of government, politics, business, and media must realize that they have to engage in a true conversation with their constituents, that they must act on behalf of and in collaboration with a public they can now hear. That is what the shifting power equation is about.

So the Davos Conversation is symbolic as a start, but it can and should be more real. The page brought together blog posts from the mountain (from Huffington Post, the Guardian, the BBC, me, and participants on the World Economic forum blog), blog posts from sea level (via Technorati and Daylife), and news coverage from around the world (via Daylife). We also asked people to submit video questions and comments so that responses should be gathered from participants. One of the commenters on my blog asked whether I was disappointed by the small number of videos. No. I expected few because it takes a lot more effort to record a video than to type a comment or post. But I wanted to see videos because they so clearly demonstrate the conversation: The WEF took these clips to the powerful and showed them people speaking and got responses on tape. It makes the conversation and the bridge it creates visible and audible: tangible. Yet this, too, was symbolic.

But clearly, if it is to be meaningful, the page and the conversation must be substantive, not merely symbolic. I hope that is the next step.

For me, the irony of working on the Davos Conversation was that I had too little time to engage in it myself. There are too many activities — and, indeed, conversations — at Davos (with too little power for my laptop), so I am still catching up both reading and writing in the conversation. There is a great deal of good talk there.

The Conversation Page will continue through the year and into next year. More on that later.

Davos07: Bloggers as a privileged class

Ben Hammersley of the Guardian — one of my roomies in the crowded lodgings of Davos — notes with a tinge of complaint that bloggers got better access than big media at Davos:

Still, all of this meant that the World Economic Forum gave some bloggers – Jeff Jarvis, Loic Le Meur, for example – greater access rights than the regular media. Bloggers with HD camcorders could wander anywhere in the building, while professional crews were restricted to the hallways and 30-minute bursts. Openness, it seems, is only for the amateur.

Well, ain’t that ironic?

Ben also notes (as I try to in a post that will soon follow) that the conversation had its limits:

The way the Davos attendees treated the web – as both the most important thing in the world, and the most trivial toy they could safely ignore – was telling. Mostly it was fear. You guys, blessed blog readers, scare the Davos attendees silly. The entire conference had the air of panic of a sort that reminded me of Marie Antoinette frantically kneading dough. Openness, conversation, the worldwide electronic harmony of man – all were talked about in the way that comment threads here on Cif go when columnists get thoughtful about their place in the world.

If we don’t open up, the organisation seemed to feel, we’ll die of irrelevance. It wasn’t just the meeting itself: Gordon Brown declared the end to “smoke-filled rooms”, and speaker after speaker declared their allegiance to openness and the way of the wiki. The biggest round of applause I heard all week was not for Blair, but for Jimmy Wales, creator of the Wikipedia – which, given the audience, was applause more from fear than hearty thanks for a much-loved site.

But the continual harping on about openness was obviously nonsense. That a meeting of a couple of thousand of the world’s richest and most powerful people might be something one could truly join, especially over the medium of comment threads, is either wishful thinking of the most surreal kind, or a cruel joke: a sop. . . .

But I wonder whether the original premise of giving bloggers access to Davos is true? After all you’ve read this past week, both here and on other blogs, do you feel that without the access that we could get this year the meeting would have been doomed to irrelevancy? Isn’t this just technophobic hysteria? Or is there a value to closed-door dealings? An unexamined life may be not worth living, but does it really need to be on show all the time? What don’t you want to know about? What don’t you want to comment on?

Davos07: On identity

One of the thin threads I saw cutting through much of my Davos experience was the notion of identity:

* We are what we make. Our YouTubed videos, Technoratied blogs, Flickred photos, Facebooked pages, Amazonned reviews, and iPodded podcasts and playlists altogether are an expression of us. There was a lot of hubbub at Davos about avatars: interviews with the players in Second Life (I wonder how many saw those sessions vs. read blog posts about the proceedings vs. read news accounts… vs. didn’t care). I remain skeptical about Second Life. I don’t need an avatar. What I put on the internet is my avatar. Our creations express us.

* Caterina Fake of Flickr gave the media people an elegant explanation of the value of “publicness” (they like to make up words at Flickr; see “interestingness“). She said that was what separated Flickr from his predecessors: the realization that people want to make what they make public; it is an expression of their identity.

* Often, creation is its own reward. At Davos, Chad Hurley revealed that the service will share revenue with producers. But he said he started YouTube without remuneration (and I suspect he couldn’t afford it on top of the bandwidth bill) because he didn’t want people running off to the next highest bidder. He wanted to give people a voice and build a place where they would share. Creation creates community.

* Anonymity is a virtue that can enable freer conversation, especially in repressive environments. But anonymity also cloaks the bad guys who spam and bot our internet or troll our blogs.

* Privacy is a concern. Viviane Reding, EU Commissioner of Information Society and Media, kept raising fears for the privacy of the individual online. And yes, there are concerns. But what the parental types don’t realize is that standards of privacy are changing rapidly: Privacy matters less to the children of the internet because you have to give up something of yourself to make connections with other people. You have to have an identity on the internet to find friends.

* Transparency is identity, too. You have to give up something of yourself for people to trust you. Journalists are having a terribly hard time understanding that; they keep thinking they should be trusted because of who they are (or whom they work for). But we don’t really know who they are.

* Every mogul wants a social network like Rupert’s; media people kept begging for clues about how to build social webs about and around their stuff. One of the young moguls at Davos said that media properties are not meant to be social networks. I’ll disagree somewhat: The sad thing is that old media don’t realize that if they had just opened up years ago, they’d have seen that they already had social networks. I tell magazine people that they have communities gathering around the good stuff they create or find that we all like; newspapers have local communities. But because they were closed castles that kept their communities outside, they didn’t realize this. And so the people outside have gone to build their own social structures — which they clearly always wanted — now that they can. Too late for the big, old guys? Maybe.

* All this opens up lots of opportunities in technology. I said to a couple of my fellow participants at Davos — a media mogul, an internet entrepreneur — and I will say it in another post here that I think the real opportunity is not to start a social network but to better enable the social network that the internet already is, to pull together our distributed identities and help us manage them and make the connections we want to make. That comes through the expression of our identities. We express that both with our content and our connections: We are the company we keep.