Posts about Internet

The perils of publicness

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the benefits of publicness and transparency. This week also reminded me of the perils.

This was hardly the first time I’ve suffered a personal attack, nor will it be the last. Although I will say that it made for a particularly awful day – bad taste in the mouth, unsettled feeling at the pit of the stomach, vulnerability, disappointment – I’m certainly in no position to seek sympathy. I’m a blogger who has done my share of snarking. I spent years as a critic and got poison-pen responses from fans and actors. I know I’m being blunt with my opinions about journalism because I think that’s both necessary and working, but I also know it rubs some people wrong. So be it.

I was gratified at the support of friends. But I was more bothered than anything that I got email from my parents wondering who this Ron Rosenbaum was (and why was he attacking their son). Even bloggers have mothers.

This isn’t about my publicness. It’s about the next person who hasn’t experienced this before and comes online to create or share and gets stabbed. What happens to her willingness to open up in public? If she reverts to her shell, what do we lose? What impact does this have on the quality of the conversation? What impact does that have on the reputation and value of the medium?

My stock answers to these questions – coming always from my optimistic defense of online conversation – have been: Don’t pay attention to the bad stuff, pay attention to the good stuff. And: We all can tell who the assholes are. And: Don’t judge the medium by its worst. And that’s all fine and true until you are reminded what it feels like to get that dull blade from behind.

I happened to see PR man Richard Edelman yesterday and so I asked for his high-priced advice on what to do in these circumstances, which he gave. No surprise, he advised not to stoop to the level of the sniper, which is exactly what I did, responding in kind, because I felt like it. Edelman said to respond with the facts and to return to the principles, which, of course, is just what I should have done (and will do with another post later). “You must stay in character,” he said. “You must not rise to the bait. You have more to lose.” Actually, I didn’t need to go to a PR expert for that. It’s what my father always advised.

Edelman acknowledged differences in media and time. On Fox and MSNBC, one does respond in kind; the one who’s loudest wins. In years past, PR people might have advised clients to ignore and hide. But that doesn’t suit the blogosphere, he said.

There’s an old social norm at work here that is, I think, an extension of old media, which says: You put yourself out there, so you put yourself at risk for getting attacked. This implies it is almost your fault for getting attacked. This is a basis of the public-figure defense in libel, the presumed right to go after people in the public eye. Once you become public, you give up the cloak and protection of privacy.

But now we are all public. Does that norm still hold online, when 180 million people have started blogs and countless more put videos on YouTube and photos on Flickr? Are they all, should they all be targets for the snipers and snarkers? Well, they all could be. But what’s our attitude about that? Is there a new norm emerging?

Online has developed one system to deal with attacks, and it came into play this week: Someone will remind the participants not to feed the trolls. Feeding the trolls not only encourages them but degrades the conversation and, again, devalues the medium. The trolls and their followers hurt the internet. So don’t feed them. Another system, also in play this week, kicks in when someone tries to get the discussion back on track to talk about the issues and ideas that are being ignored. One norm that has developed is that it’s proper etiquette to link to responses to an attack (note that Rosenbaum has not granted even that simple courtesy). Finally, there is humor.

Other systems don’t work. Sites are forever looking at automated means of getting rid of the dross. Where is the troll algorithm? And I hope we don’t revert to suing for libel, for that will put a chill on conversation and, as Susan Crawford has pointed out, libel law becomes irrelevant as we all have the means of response (which I took).

I wonder whether more new systems will emerge. I’ve argued that violating one’s own privacy with beer-party pictures will become less important thanks to the doctrine of mutually assured humiliation. That will become more and more the case under Zuckerberg’s Law, which decrees that “…next year, people will share twice as much information as they share this year, and next year, they will be sharing twice as much as they did the year before.” We’ll all be vulnerable. In the company of nudists, no one’s naked.

The conversation is well worth the trouble. I am the obnoxious optimist. I do trust the wisdom of the crowd, the market, the public and I believe that we will all benefit the more that we are all public and the more our institutions are all transparent. But I fear losing the conversation and wisdom and contributions to it from people who get the shiv in the back once too often (which for some will be once). It’s one matter to read stupid attacks and gather around them as entertainment. It’s another to be on the wrong end of them and I need to be reminded of that as I was this week.

Maybe that’s what happens: We all get attacked once and become wiser for it. Or we all get attacked and become nastier for it; that’s the fear. There were always be trolls, fools, idiots, and assholes; there are in life and so they will be here on the internet. That doesn’t ruin the internet any more than it ruins New York. The question is whether and how we can see and protect the value of the internet. Optimist that I am, I believe we will.

: LATER: By the way, I see I’m being baited by another person who only attacks people and only to get attention and links. I’m not even watching what he says; I stopped watching him two years ago. Just a note: This is why I love Twitter. I blocked him. And now my world is free of this troll. It feels good. And, no, I’m not going to give him the satisfaction of a link, either.

A view from Dubai

A quick video from my hotel room:

Our airwaves, indeed

Tom Evslin is celebrating the FCC’s decision to open up the white spaces between old TV channels to unlicensed use (to create, for example, “wi-fi on steroids,” as Google’s Larry Page has put it).

This is hugely important. It could provide the means to connect more of America. It could provide the competition that assures us both reasonable prices for access and open and unfettered access (for, in a competitive marketplace, the provider that limits our use will be the provider that loses). This will bring more innovation. It will lead to new businesses. It will help educate people. It’s a big deal. Tom’s list of benefits:

* Within a year there could be new, cheap radios and commercial services that make mobile broadband available with greater bandwidth than cable offers today AND at lower prices.
* Mobile phones on these frequencies will be much cheaper to use AND will have much better data capability than they have today.
* Since the US is the first country to make so much desirable spectrum available for open unlicensed use, the door is open for a wave of innovation here and the invention of products and services which will eventually be used around the world.
* Much of the concerns many of us have had about tollgates on the Internet and an end to open interconnection will evaporate since the barrier to providing Internet access will be much lower and the power of the existing cable-telco duopoly diluted.

Note this historic moment: I’m praising the FCC.

(Here is my op-ed on opening up the white spaces.)

And here is my essay for the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the internet as a right:

The internet is a right. We have reached the point at which enabling and assuring open, unfettered, and universal access to the internet should become a hallmark of civilized societies. The Global Agenda Council stands in a position to make this the goal of nations.

In civilized societies, universal education is a right. In some nations, health care is a right. Some other services provided in the common good may require payment but in developed nations are nonetheless considered rights: access to clean water and electricity. In the United States, even telephones are a right, as users pay fees to subsidize the cost of getting lines to all people. In the United Kingdom, television is a right insofar as the government levies a tax to support it. Such rights may be met publicly or privately.

Access to the internet – and open, broadband internet that is neither censored nor filtered by government or business – should be seen, similarly, as a necessity and thus a right. Just as we judge nations by their literacy, we should now judge them by their connectedness.

It is in societies’ enlightened self-interest to enable such access. The WEF Global Agenda Council can demonstrate this to nations by cataloguing, quantifying, and demonstrating the many benefits that will accrue with universal access:

* In business: Jobs will be created. New and higher skills will be learned and used. Companies can find new efficiencies. Entrepreneurism will be fostered (and using web 2.0 tools, less capital – in a capital-starved time – will be needed to start new companies that create jobs and wealth). Innovation will be sparked. With access, jobs may move into once-isolated areas of the world. Businesses can, at the same time, reach worldwide markets.

* In education: Simply making the world’s digital knowledge accessible to and searchable by anyone in a nation is a huge step forward in informing and educating a people. Encouraging popular use of the internet is also a magnet drawing people toward literacy. Connecting whole populations enables anyone connected to become educated. Schools can become disaggregated and reaggregated so students can find classes anywhere and classes can find students anywhere.

* In government: Connectivity will connect citizens with more services and can bring more transparency to government as citizens come to expect accessible and open information. Citizens will become more involved in politics and will be able to coalesce and act around issues and needs.

* In society: We can only speculate on the long-term effect of universal connectivity on society, but creating more ways for more people to connect with each other over greater distances and periods of time will surely have a positive impact on understanding and even friendship.

Though it might seem a bad time to propose such an aggressive goal – in the midst of a financial meltdown – it can also be argued that this is precisely the right time. As governments spend funds on infrastructure to stimulate economies, the financial and societal benefits of building and extending the digital infrastructure – over, for example, roads and airports – would be great. Favoring digital over physical assets will also have the environmental fringe benefit of favoring online communications and collaboration over travel.

Part and parcel of this discussion must be an examination of the definition of openness. The internet is itself an embodiment of free speech: the First Amendment brought to life. By its openness, we may judge a society’s freedom of speech. Gating access against content, applications, and uses must be discouraged. At the same time, there needs to be an acknowledgment of the economics of access: If you use more water, even if having access to it is a right, you pay for it. In some nations, on the other hand, there is no practical limit to the free education one may receive. So what should the economics of a universal and open internet be? There also needs to be a discussion of security for users and for the internet itself.

(See also a very good discussion about this notion here.)

The internet as a right

I need to write an essay on a bold goal for the internet for a World Economic Forum (aka Davos) Global Agenda Council on the future of the internet. My thoughts:

The internet is a right.

I can’t imagine a bolder notion than that. Or maybe it’s not so bold. In a civilized society, education is a right. Some services we may pay for but society still treats them as rights: In any developed society, we expect to have water, electricity, even phone service (in the U.S., we all pay fees to assure that everyone can get a line). In the U.K., television is a right such as funding it is a responsibility. These rights can be met publicly or privately.

Why not the internet? I say that access to an unfettered internet – an open internet that is not censored or filtered by government or business – should be expected as a new pillar of civilized society. Just as we judge societies by their literacy, we should now judge them by their connectedness.

It’s in their enlightened self-interest. And I will suggest that the WEF Global Agenda Council should catalogue, quantify, and demonstrate that self-interest in terms of the benefit the internet brings a nation in:
* business – jobs created, efficiencies found, innovation sparked, entrepreneurism supported;
* education – every human able to search all our digital knowledge, distributed university curricula, the growth of the aggregated education, the pull toward literacy;
* politics – the ability of citizens to coalesce and act, the increase in involvement in politics, the greater transparency enabled (which some politicians will not think is in their self-interest – but that is precisely why we will want this creed to separate democrats from dictators and the corrupt);
* government – we have only begun to use connectivity to improve governance in its relationships with constituents and in efficiencies;
* society – I argue in my book that staying connected may change the nature of relationships for the good – one-to-one and nation-to-nation.

Now I ask you to add to that list: What are the benefits that will accrue if and when every citizen has a right to an open internet?

And how do you define openness? I’ve argued that the internet itself is the substantiation of the First Amendment; by its openness, we can judge a society’s freedom of speech. Gating against speech, content, applications, and uses must be discouraged. At the same time, there needs to be an acknowledgment of the economics of this: If you use more water, even if having it is a right, you pay for it. In some nations, if you use more education, you don’t pay for it. What should the economics of a universal internet be? And there needs to be an acknowledgment of security both for users and for the internet itself.

In the end, this is not legislation – even as power as the WEF may be, it’s not in a position to pass laws. Rather, it is an expectation, a definition of progressive civilization in our era.

What do you think?

Once and for all

As threatened, in my Guardian column this week, I try to catalogue the yes-but contrariness I hear about the internet’s opportunities–and my responses:

It never fails. I’ll be talking with a group about the amazing opportunities of the internet age and inevitably someone will pipe up and say, “Yes, but there are inaccuracies on the internet.” And: “There are no standards there.” Or: “Most people just watch junk.” There the conversation stalls. I take it as personal failure, not keeping everyone’s eyes focused on the future. Suddenly, we’re spinning our wheels in the present or sliding back to the past, missing the chance to explore and exploit our new reality. Once and for all, I’d like to respond to these fears and complaints. They won’t go away. But at least I could, as the prime minister does in question time, refer the honourable curmudgeon to the replies I give here.

There’s junk on the internet. True. There’s junk everywhere (even on bookshop shelves). The mistake is to think that the internet should be packaged and perfected, like media. It’s not media. Blogger Doc Searls, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, says the web is instead a place where we talk and connect. In his 1996 Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, John Perry Barlow called it “the new home of the mind.” The internet is life. Life is messy. Get used to it.

Most people watch junk. True. But “most” is a measurement that mattered only in the mass media economy, which is over. In our new mass of niches, we each may seek out and support what we like. Yes, we’ve all watched our silly flaming cat videos (not to mention Big Brother). But we’ve also watched moments of genius made possible by the internet. Why concentrate on the crap when brilliance is only a click away?

Anyone can say anything on the internet. True. And God bless it for that. That cacophony you hear is democracy and the free marketplace of ideas.

There are inaccuracies on the internet. True. But the web enables us to correct our mistakes – because nothing is finished there. With a link or a comment, we can also correct others. And thanks to Google, we can look up facts from many sources in an instant. I’d say the internet has given us a greater respect and facility for facts and has made us as a society more accurate.

Wikipedia has mistakes. True. So does this newspaper. Both are better at making corrections than books and encyclopedias. Wikipedia, like the web, has enabled an unprecedented collection of knowledge, passion, creation, and collaboration.

We need a seal of approval for internet content. False. The last thing we need is a system for certification. For who should have the authority to do it? Who would wield that shield in China, Iran, or Saudi Arabia? The web is not one-size-fits-all. Neither is knowledge.

Bloggers aren’t journalists. True and false. The Pew Internet & American Life survey says only a third of bloggers consider what they do journalism. But today any witness can perform an act of journalism, giving us more eyes on society – which journalists should celebrate.

People are rude on the internet. True. They’re rude in life, but perhaps more so online, thanks to anonymity. But we all know who the idiots are. The smart response is to ignore the stupid.

The internet has no ethics. True. It no more has a moral code than a telephone wire, a car, or a knife. We who use it bring the ethics and laws we live under already.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s please return to the full half of the glass and examine the many new opportunities the net presents from these challenges. When you see nothing but junk, create quality. Where quality is hard to find, curate it, adding your own seal of approval with a link. When you read inaccuracies and misunderstandings, add facts, corrections, context and journalism. If people on the internet get things wrong, educate them. When you hear the noise of people talking online, listen. I know I come across as the internet triumphalist. Somebody has to. Somebody needs to be the contrarian’s contrarian.