Creative Commons

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“Influence” is hot shit these days. Linkedin 0cde531has been making a big deal about it; and it seems to be working, according to Dharmesh Shaw, a Linkedin Influencer:

First of all, there’s the sheer power and reach of the platform. When I write on my personal blog (which is reasonably popular) an article will get roughly 5,000-10,000 views. If it turns out to be popular and is widely shared on social media, that number can spike to 50,000+ views. That’s pretty good. It makes my day when it happens.

But let’s compare that to how my content performs on the LinkedIn platform. I’ve posted 30 articles as an Influencer. The average number of views across those articles? 123,000!

The most popular article I’ve written has received 1.2 million views and 4,200 comments (whew!) That’s heady stuff.

And it’s also fun. I enjoy the opportunity to write about a broader range of topics. Obviously I write about issues that are important to startups, but I also get to write about building a company you love, andpersonal branding, and even extremely broad themes like the qualities of truly confident people.

I’m sure the same leverage also comes through publishing in Medium, Forbes, The Atlantic, HuffPo and other big Web publishers that pump lots of content. I’m happy for Dharmesh and other writers in those pubs. Hell, I may end up writing for one or more of them as well. Who knows. But meanwhile, as a writer, I have three problems with them.

First is that they’re all silos. This was unavoidable in in the physical world — every publisher needed their own platform; but on the Net and the Web, we already have a platform for all of us. We shouldn’t have to only write for the big publisher to be heard. This is why I’d rather write here, where I’ve got my own press and I’m free and fully in control, rather than in one of these big silos.

Second is that they don’t pay me. When one does, I’ll be glad to write for them, provided I get to write what I want, and not what somebody else wants to use me for (you know, as an “influencer”).

Third is noise. A lot of stuff published on these sites is damn good. But all of the publishers are pumping as much as they can in front of as many eyeballs they can for as many advertisers as they can. Which is cool (provided the advertising is of the old-fashioned brand kind, and not of the surveillance-fed kind—which, sadly, most of it is). But the volume of content alone tends to make everything into Snow on the Water. I also have little faith that the links won’t rot.

But here’s the bigger thing: being useful has more leverage, and more substance, than just being influential. In fact, I think being useful might be the most highly leveraged human virtue, other than love. Without it, we wouldn’t have civilization. And being useful makes you influential anyway.

So here are two ways to make yourself useful: tag everything you can and use permissive Creative Commons licenses. Lets start with the effects of these things, for me, and work back to causes.

Look at these links:


All of them feature a photo by me. I did nothing to put those there beyond tagging uploaded photos “anthropocene” and licensing them to only require photo credit (“Attribution CC BY“). So, whenever somebody writes about the Anthropocene Epoch (a durable topic that deeply matters), and wants to use a photo without any copyright friction, there is a high chance that one of my photos tagged “anthropocene” will illustrate the piece, with credit. Same thing happens with:

Photos generously licensed also tend to show up in Wikipedia, by way of Wikimedia Commons, which has a palette of graphic elements that writers can raid when editing Wikipedia articles. As of today 490 of my photos are in Wikimedia Commons. Many (perhaps most) of them also show up in Wikipedia, again with credit. I did nothing to put any of those photos in either Wikimedia Commons or Wikipedia. I simply made them useful.

It helps, of course, to have dozens of thousands of photos up on the Web, but that matters less than the motivation behind them — the same motivation one can put behind anything: make it useful.

Two more bits of advice: say interesting stuff, and link a lot. We can see the effects of both in Echovar‘s blog post, Mind the Gap: You are as You are Eaten. In it he takes something I said, then follows three links in it to three different blog posts, writing deeply about all of them in ways I had not anticipated.

Were those posts influential, useful or both? Probably both, but either way, useful came first.

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Aaron SwarzI 399px-Malik_Bendjelloul_Deauville_2012was digging around for links toward a post on Brian Knappenberger‘s crowdsourced Aaron Swartz documentary, The Internet’s Own Boy, when I learned that Malik Bendjelloul, the documentary filmmaker who won an Oscar last year for Searching for Sugar Man, was also dead — like Aaron, a suicide.

I would guess that readers of this blog are more familiar with Aaron than with Malik, though the ratio is probably reversed for the rest of the world, or at least for the part of it that cares about movies.

Hardly a week goes by that I don’t urge, in the strongest way I can, that people see Searching for Sugar Man. I also urge people not to read up on it first. Better to just go see it. The story works best if you start knowing little or nothing about it.

Sugar Man is one of those rare things: a deep-hearted feel-good documentary. There is no tragedy to it, but rather an almost holy sense of transcendence. And just a great, great story. Please watch it. Note the artistry behind the titles, the transitions, the editing. And think on how Malik did most of those in his apartment.

I was interviewed by Brian for The Internet’s Own Boy, but I don’t know if what I said ended up in the movie or on the cutting room floor. I suspect the latter, because most of what I said pertained to Aaron’s genius rather than the narrative vector of the film. (A correct one, about Aaron being hounded to death by prosecutorial overreach.) And I don’t care either way. I trusted Brian to make a great movie, and it looks like he succeeded. It got a standing ovation at Sundance, and other reviews I’ve seen were all positive.

It is gratifying to see a number of my still photos of Aaron in the trailer, thanks to having been published under a Creative Commons license (attribution only) that encourages use. Creative Commons was co-created by Aaron when he was still a teenager.

What we lost with both men was their promise. When Aaron died, I wrote, “We haven’t just lost a good man, but the better world he was helping to make.” The same goes for Malik. Like Aaron, he was a sweet, brilliant and talented young man. The world is lessened by his absence, in ways we will never know.

Bonus linkage:

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Anything look familiar about the ice crystals on NBC’s Vancouver Olympics bumper screens (some of which float behind Bob Costas’ head when he sits talking at his desk)?

You can see the originals here. They were shot at our apartment near Boston one year ago, on a morning when it was way below freezing outside, and moisture from inside the house collected in these snowy patterns, a fractal festival on the insides of our storm windows. (All of which our landlady has since replaced with fresh thermal ones, by the way — meaning I’m not going to get those shots again.)

Anyway, I was approached last Fall by NBC about using the shots for their Olympics coverage. They’d found them in my photo pile on Flickr. I said sure. There’s no money in it, but my name will run in the credits.

Meanwhile, it makes watching the show a lot more fun. And it’s a big win for Creative Commons too.

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