Posts about Internet

What’s a telegraph?

The power went out at my daughter’s middle school yesterday just as she was in the computer lab. What to do? The teacher pulled out and dusted off a technology crossword puzzle for them to do. She just showed it to me and was puzzled. 10 across asked: Connects the computer to the telephone. Julia’s answer was obvious, she thought: Skype. No, said the test, the proper answer: Modem. “What’s a modem, Daddy?” she asked.

(See also the comments here about the telegraph.)

Now more than ever

Friend Stephen Baker, author of the wonderful The Numerati, wrote a kind review of What Would Google Do?, eloquently summarizing its key message and also making a point I hope others see: that now more than ever, in the midst of crisis and permanent change, we should look to companies that see the world in new ways. Steve wrote:

It’s full of ideas, and it’s perfectly timed for the economic storm we’re experiencing right now. The way Jarvis sees it, most of our industries and institutions developed in a time of information constraints. People made money or achieved power, whether in publishing, banking, insurance or education, by leveraging the information they had access to. They profited from scarcity.

Information, in the age of Google and the Internet, is no longer scarce. It no longer takes time to travel from one place to another. Knowledge no longer requires the movement of atoms. Our brains are linked. That is the revolution Jarvis describes. Of course, we’ve all been aware of these changes brewing since the dawn of the Internet. But Jarvis does a very good job pulling it all together. Readers of his blog will be familiar with many of his arguments, from his push for transparency, links and “publicness” to “small is the new big.” But the book forces him to synthesize more than on the blog, and to tie these phenomena together.

Jarvis was at work on this book before our economy dive-bombed. But as I mentioned, our economic situation makes the book more relevant, not less. This economy is on its way to tearing down the inefficient structures built in the age of scarce information. Understanding and adapting to the forces he describes are no longer simply competitive issues. For many–journalism and publishing are front and center–it’s a matter of survival.

(I might add here that the Numerati are leading actors in this drama. The information revolution he describes creates the rivers of data they feed on. And there are no bigger Numerati on earth than the triumvirate running Google, a company entirely built on the analysis of data and the statistical correlations between what we’re looking for and the advertisements most likely to interest us.)

Thank you, Steve.

Tomorrow belongs to them

As I was writing my first book, What Would Google Do?, I thought I knew what my second would be – about the profound changes in culture, worldview, attitude, aptitude, impact of young people today, a group I believe will prove to be an extraordinary generation – Generation G, I call them in the book. But almost as soon as I thought that, ambitious and important books on the topic came out from people I respect. So I’ll recommend them instead.

Don Tapscott, coauthor of Wikinomics, wrote Grown Up Digital, which I believe will be seen as the seminal work on the net generation. It is the product of $4 million worth of research including 10,000 interviews in many countries, producing a treasure trove of data about behavior and beliefs.

Importantly, Tapscott, like the other authors here, debunks the shallow assumptions made about this generation – that they are unsocial or antisocial, stupefied and stupid, exhibitionistic and narcissistic and uncaring. Instead, at the start, he writes:

The story the emerges from the research is an inspiring one, and it should bring us all great hope. As the first global generation ever, the Net Geners are smarter, quicker, and more tolerant of diversity than their predecessors. They care strongly about justice and the problems faced by their society and are typically engaged in some kind of civic activity at school, at work, or in their communities. Recently in the United States, hundreds of thousands of them have been inspired by Barack Obama’s run for the presidency and have gotten involved in politics for the first time. This generation is engaging politically and sees democracy and government as key tools for improving the world….

Eight characteristics, or norms, describe the typical Net Gener and differentiate them from their boomer parents. They prize freedom and freedom of choice. They want to customize things, make them their own. they’re natural collaborators, who enjoy a conversation, not a lecture. They’ll scrutinize you and your organization. They insist on integrity. They want to have fun, even at work and at school. Speed is mornal. Innovation is part of life.

Such insights continue regarding the generation and work, commerce, family, and democracy.

I believe – but won’t live to know – that this generation will prove to be as remarkable in its way – and for very different reasons – as the World War II generation was. This, too, could be a generation that builds through change and Tapscott’s book gives us a window into their culture and its impact.

I’m equally heartened by Mimi Ito’s Digital Youth Project report for the MacArthur Foundation. It, too, defends youth against common slanders. Youth, it says, “use online media to extend friendships and interests… and engage in peer-based, self-directed learning online.” In short: Digital is good and adults should encourage and enable youth to be digital and benefit from it.

Next I plan to dig into Born Digital by the amazing John Palfrey of Harvard’s Berkman Center and Urs Gasser. And then: The Pirate’s Dilemma – How youth culture is reinventing capitalism by Matt Mason.

At the end of my book, I say of this generation:

My generation, the children of the 1960s, prided itself on nonconformity but our nonconformity became conformist. I fear it was a fashion. Some worry that Generation G’s nonconformity and individualism will be entitled rather than empowered, alone more than social, entertained more than educated. Any of that and worse could be true. But I have faith in this generation because, far earlier than their elders—my peers—did in their lives, today’s young people have taken leadership, contributed to society and the economy, and created greatness: great technology, great companies, great thinking.

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: