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Amazon is now shipping my new book, The Intention Economy. Yes, the Kindle version too. They even have the first chapter available for free. You can “look inside” as well.

Thanks to Amazon’s search, you can even find stuff that’s not in the index, such as the acknowledgements. Those include a lot of people, including everybody who has ever been active on the ProjectVRM list.

The book isn’t for me. It’s for customers. All customers, that is. Not just the ones buying the book. The first paragraph of the Introduction explains,

This book stands with the customer. This is out of necessity, not sympathy. Over the coming years customers will be emancipated from systems built to control them. They will become free and independent actors in the marketplace, equipped to tell vendors what they want, how they want it, where and when—even how much they’d like to pay—outside of any vendor’s system of customer control. Customers will be able to form and break relationships with vendors, on customers’ own terms, and not just on the take-it-or-leave-it terms that have been pro forma since Industry won the Industrial Revolution.

That’s what the VRM development community has been working toward since I launched ProjectVRM at the Berkman Center in 2006. Now that community is getting kinda large. Here at the European Identity and Cloud Conference (#EIC12) in Munich, I have met or learned about a bunch of VRM developers I hadn’t known  before. Pretty soon I won’t be able to keep up, and that’s a good thing.

The book has four main parts:

  1. Customer Captivity
  2. The Networked Marketplace
  3. The Liberated Customer
  4. The Liberated Vendor

In a way it follows up on work begun with The Cluetrain Manifesto. The subtitle there was The End of Business as Usual. The subhead for The Intention Economy is When Customers Take Charge. Hey, when one thing ends, another must begin. This is it.

We’re not there yet. If The Intention Economy speeds things up, it will do its job.




(Cross-posted from the ProjectVRM blog.)

left r-buttonright r-buttonFor as long as we’ve had economies, demand and supply have been attracted to each other like a pair of magnets. Ideally, they should match up evenly and produce good outcomes. But sometimes one side comes to dominate the other, with bad effects along with good ones.

Such has been the case on the Web ever since it went commercial with the invention of the cookie in 1995, resulting in a  in which the demand side — that’s you and me — plays the submissive role of mere “users,” who pretty much have to put up with whatever rules websites set on the supply side.

Consistent with  (“Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”) the near absolute power of website cows over user calves has resulted in near-absolute corruption of website ethics in respect to personal privacy.

This has been a subject of productive obsession by  and her team of reporters at The Wall Street Journal, which have been producing the  series (shortcut: since July 30, 2010, when Julia by-lined . The next day I called that piece a turning point. And I still believe that.

Today came another one, again in the Journal, in Julia’s latest, titled Web Firms to Adopt ‘No Track’ Button. She begins,

A coalition of Internet giants including Google Inc. has agreed to support a do-not-track button to be embedded in most Web browsers—a move that the industry had been resisting for more than a year.

The reversal is being announced as part of the White House’s call for Congress to pass a “privacy bill of rights,” that will give people greater control over the personal data collected about them.

The long White House press release headline reads,

We Can’t Wait: Obama Administration Unveils Blueprint for a “Privacy Bill of Rights” to Protect Consumers Online

Internet Advertising Networks Announces Commitment to “Do-Not-Track” Technology to Allow Consumers to Control Online Tracking

Obviously, government and industry have been working together on this one. Which is good, as far as it goes. Toward that point, Julia adds,

The new do-not-track button isn’t going to stop all Web tracking. The companies have agreed to stop using the data about people’s Web browsing habits to customize ads, and have agreed not to use the data for employment, credit, health-care or insurance purposes. But the data can still be used for some purposes such as “market research” and “product development” and can still be obtained by law enforcement officers.

The do-not-track button also wouldn’t block companies such as Facebook Inc. from tracking their members through “Like” buttons and other functions.

“It’s a good start,” said Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. “But we want you to be able to not be tracked at all if you so choose.”

In the New York Times’ White House, Consumers in Mind, Offers Online Privacy Guidelines Edward Wyatt writes,

The framework for a new privacy code moves electronic commerce closer to a one-click, one-touch process by which users can tell Internet companies whether they want their online activity tracked.

Much remains to be done before consumers can click on a button in their Web browser to set their privacy standards. Congress will probably have to write legislation governing the collection and use of personal data, officials said, something that is unlikely to occur this year. And the companies that make browsers — Google, Microsoft, Apple and others — will have to agree to the new standards.

No they won’t. Buttons can be plug-ins to existing browsers. And work has already been done. VRM developers are on the case, and their ranks are growing. We have dozens of developers (at that last link) working on equipping both the demand and the supply side with tools for engaging as independent and respectful parties. In fact we already have a button that can say “Don’t track me,” plus much more — for both sides. Its calle the R-button, and it looks like this: ⊂ ⊃. (And yes, those symbols are real characters. Took a long time to find them, but they do exist.)

Yours — the user’s — is on the left. The website’s is on the right. On a browser it might look like this:

r-button in a browser

Underneath both those buttons can go many things, including preferences, policies, terms, offers, or anything else — on both sides. One of those terms can be “do not track me.” It might point to a fourth party (see explanations here and here) which, on behalf of the user or customer, maintains settings that control sharing of personal data, including the conditions that must be met. A number of development projects and companies are already on this case. Some have personal data stores (PDSes), also called “lockers” or “vaults.” These include:

Three of those are in the U.S., one in Austria, one in France, one in South Africa, and three in the U.K. (All helping drive the Midata project by the U.K. government, by the way.) And those are just companies with PDSes. There are many others working on allied technologies, standards, protocols and much more. They’re all just flying below media radar because media like to look at what big suppliers and governments are doing. Speaking of which… 🙂

Here’s Julia again:

Google is expected to enable do-not-track in its Chrome Web browser by the end of this year.

Susan Wojcicki, senior vice president of advertising at Google, said the company is pleased to join “a broad industry agreement to respect the ‘Do Not Track’ header in a consistent and meaningful way that offers users choice and clearly explained browser controls.”

White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer Daniel Weitzner said the do-not-track option should clear up confusion among consumers who “think they are expressing a preference and it ends up, for a set of technical reasons, that they are not.”

Some critics said the industry’s move could throw a wrench in a separate year-long effort by the World Wide Web consortium to set an international standard for do-not-track. But Mr. Ingis said he hopes the consortium could “build off of” the industry’s approach.

So here’s an invitation to the White House, Google, the 3wC, interested BigCos (including CRM companies), developers of all sizes and journalists who are interested in building out genuine and cooperative relationships between demand and supply::::

Join us at IIW — the Internet Identity Workshop — in Mountain View, May 1-3. This is the unconference where developers and other helpful parties gather to talk things over and move development forward. No speakers, no panels, no BS. Just good conversation and productive work. It’s our fourteenth one, and they’ve all been highly productive.

As for the r-button, take it and run with it. It’s there for the development. It’s meaningful. We’re past square one. We’d love to have all the participation we can get, from the big guys as well as the little ones listed above and here.

To help get your thinking started, visit this presentation of one r-button scenario, by Adam Marcus of MIT. Here’s another view of the same work, which came of of a Google Summer of Code project through ProjectVRM and the Berkman Center:

(Props to Oshani Seneviratne and David Karger, also both of MIT, and Ahmad Bakhiet, of Kings College London, for work on that project.)

If we leave fixing the calf-cow problem entirely up to the BigCos and BigGov, it won’t get fixed. We have to work from the demand side as well. In economies, customers are the 100%.

Here are some other stories, mostly gathered by Zemanta:

All look at the symptoms, and supply-side cures. Time for the demand side to demand answers from itself. Fortunately, we’ve been listening, and the answers are coming.

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When we say “social” these days, we mostly mean the sites and services of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Foursquare and other commercial entities. Not talking on the phone or in person. Not meeting at a café. Not blogging, or emailing or even texting. Those things are all retro and passé. Worse, they’re not what marketers get high off of these days. Meaning they’re outside the Big Data ecosystem, most of which is devoted to improving the vast business of guesswork we call advertising, flowing outward increasingly through digital media.

The marketplace where all the Big Bux are being spent these day is not the public one where culture is made and goods are bought and sold. It’s the marketing marketplace.

Go to See who and what is tracking you right now. Chances are it’s more than a few of the hundreds of companies listed here. The market they’re in is putting better crosshairs on your back and your wallet. Not the one where you live and you shop.

Their market is in selling your ass to advertisers. So is Twitter’s, for that matter. It’s not serving you as a customer. You are a consumer. Your job is to consume “content,” and hopefully every once in awhile also click on stuff you might buy. That’s it. Yes, it’s a trade-off, but it’s not a very conscious one, and it’s not very “social,” either. Not when you don’t really know the company, or have a relationship with human beings there. Ever tried to call customer service at Facebook? Or hell, at Google? They don’t do that. They don’t want to get personal with you, even if they give you free personal services. Again, you’re not the customer. You’re inventory.

What’s missing here is real innovation in the real marketplace. (Besides what’s going on in VRM, of course.)

This became clear to me yesterday when John Wilbanks mentioned an amazing idea he had posted recently, titled Consumption Offsets and Sustainable Loyalty Cards. Here are the key paragraphs:

I had two ideas today. One is that if we can trade emissions at a corporate level, we should be able to trade consumption. So if we can track consumption of goods, and the sustainability of those goods, we have the rudiments of a market for consumption. So why not offer (wealthy, western, northern) people the chance to pay extra for an offset for their iPad like they do with their plane ticket?

My other idea was based on the ever present loyalty cards for grocery stores, pharmacies, and even cupcake shops in the US. You give away your personal data in return for lower prices (although I often use the algorithm of [local area code of store] + 867-5309). Why not something similar for sustainable goods? Either you pay the full price, or you pony up your data to save the world. Also you get a sticker to put on your computer to show how much better you are than other people – and that’s big, because being proud of being a sustainable consumer is currently, and unfortunately, densely tied to being one.

Both here and in conversation, John posed an interesting question: If personal data really is an “asset class,” as the World Economic Forum says it is, shouldn’t we be able to sell it? Or to make it fungible in some other way?

John’s second idea raises two interesting questions:

  • Who would buy your personal data?
  • What would they use it for?

Especially when, right now, lots of companies you don’t know (and a few you do) are getting that data for free. Would they pay more than nothing for it? If not, is it possible that it really is worth nothing?

When I ask questions like the two above, the answer I usually get is marketers and marketing. Some of the data you shed in the course of surfing and shopping helps sellers remember and serve you. Amazon always comes up as a canonical example. But even there Amazon is often suggesting books I’ve already bought or would hardly be interested in. Grocery stores, meanwhile, mostly use my shopping data to push coupons for stuff I bought once and might never buy again. The whole loyalty card game is one reason we do most of our grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s, which doesn’t bother with any gimmicks, and gives great service as well.

Here’s where I’m going with this: The marketplace that matters is the primary one where we live and work and shop. Not the secondary one where people we don’t know are sniffing our digital butts to see what we’ve consumed and might want to consume instead (or again).

I’m about to lead a session at the Social Business Jam, on Seamless Integration of Social. In the spirit of Dave Winer’s bailing from Facebook today, I’d like to suggest that we look at how social works in real markets, and why we keep mistaking closed private markets on the Web for real ones.

For evidence of how far off base we are, here’s Zemanta‘s list of articles related to what I’ve been writing about here:

Related articles

And, as a small counterweight to that dollarfall of investment and buzz, A Sense of Bewronging.

See ya at the jam.

I’ve been digging around for stuff I blogged (or wrote somewhere on the Web) way back when. After finding two items I thought might be lost, I decided to point to them here, which (if search engines still work the Old Way) might make them somewhat easier to find again later.

One is Rebuilding the software industry, one word at a time, in Kuro5hin. (And cool to see that Kuro5hin is still trucking along.) The other is Cluetrain requires conversation. Both are from early 2001, more than ten years ago. A sample from the former:

I went through my own head-scratching epiphany right after the Web got hot and I found my profession had changed from writer to “content provider.” What was that about? Were my words going to be shrink-wrapped, strapped on a skid and sold in bulk at Costco?

No, “content” was just a handy way to label anything you could “package” and “deliver” through the “vehicle” of this wonderful new “medium.” Marketers were salivating at the chance to “target,” “capture” and “penetrate” ever-more-narrow “audiences” with ever-more-narrow “messages.” Never mind that there was zero demand at the receiving end for any of it. (If you doubt the math, ask what you’d be willing to pay to see an ad on the Web. Or anywhere.)

Soon I began to wonder what had happened to markets, which for thousands of years were social places where people got together to buy and sell stuff, and to make civilization. By the end of the Industrial Age, every category you could name was a “market.” So was every region and every demographic wedge where there was money to be spent. Worse, these were all too often conceived as “arenas” and “battlefields,” even though no growing category could be fully described in the zero-sum terms of sports and war metaphors.

And from the latter:

Cluetrain talks far less about what markets need that about what they are. The first thesis says Markets are conversations. Not markets need to be conversations. Or people need the right message. In fact, we make the point that there is no market for messages. If you want to see how little people want messages, look at the MUTE button on your TV’s remote control. Sum up all marketing sentiment on the receiving end and you’ll find negative demand for it.

There’s nothing conversational about a message. I submit that if a message turns into a conversation, it isn’t a message at all. It’s a topic.

Not many people noticed (including me, until Jakob Nielsen pointed it out) that The Cluetrain Manifesto was written in first and second person plural voices, and was addressed not by marketers to markets, but by markets to marketers. It said —

if you only have time for one clue this year, this is the one to get…

Chris Locke wrote that in early 1999. Marketing still doesn’t get it. Maybe it can’t.

And, because marketing (and the rest of business) didn’t get it, I started ProjectVRM, and am now finishing a book about customer liberation and why free customers will prove more valuable than captive ones.

This stuff seems to be taking awhile. But hey, it’s fun.

Last week we spent a lot of time here, in Venice:

Bancogiro, Rialto Mercado, Venice

The triangular marble plaza on the edge of the Grand Canal of Venice is known informally as Bancogiro, once one of Italy’s landmark banks, and now the name of an osteria there. The plaza is part of Rialto Mercado, the marketplace where Marco Polo was based and prospered when he wasn’t out opening trade routes to the east. It’s also where Shakespeare set The Merchant of Venice, and where Luca Pacioli studied double entry bookkeeping, which he described in Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportioni et proportionalità (Venice 1494), one of the first textbooks written in the vernacular (rather than Latin), and an early success story of the printing press.

Here’s a photo set of the place.

Here’s a 360° view. (While it’s called “Fondamenta de la Preson,” that’s just the cockeyed white building in the map above — a former womens prison — in the corner of the plaza.)

Note that Google Maps tells us little about the location, but plenty about the commercial establishments there. When I go for a less fancy view, the problem gets worse:

Bancogiro, Rialto Mercado, Venice

In that pull-down menu (where it says “Traffic”) I can turn on webcams, photos and other stuff from the Long Tail; but there’s no way to turn on labels for the Grand Canal, the Bancogiro plaza, the Rialto Mercado vaporetto (water bus) stop, the Rialto Mercado itself, the Fondamenta de la Preson (women’s prison, labeled, sort of, in the upper view but not the lower), or even the @#$% street names. The only non-commercial item on the map is the Arciconfraternita Di San Cristoforo E Della Misericordia, which is an organization more than a place.

(My wife just said “You know those hotel maps they give away, that only show hotels? It’s like that, only worse. The hotel maps at least give you some street names.”)

For example, try to find information about the Bancogiro: that is, about the original historic bank, rather than the osteria or the other commercial places with that name. (Here’s one lookup.) For awhile I thought the best information I could find on the Web was text from the restaurant menu, which I posted here. That says the bank was founded in 1157. But this scholarly document says 1617. Another seems to agree. But both are buried under commercial links.

The problem here is that the Web has become commercialized at the cost of other needs of use. And Google itself is leading the way — to the point where it is beginning to fail in its mission to “organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

This is understandable, and easily rationalized. Google is a commercial enterprise. It makes money by selling advertising, and placing commercial information in settings like the ones above. This has been good in many ways, and funds many free services. But it has subordinated purely useful purposes, such as finding the name of a street, a canal, or a bus stop.

There are (at least) two central problems here for Google and other giants like it. One is that we’re not always buying something, or looking only for commercial information. The other is that advertising should not be the only business model for the likes of Google, and all who depend on it are at risk while it remains so.

One missing piece is a direct market for useful information. Toward that end I’ll put this out there: I am willing to pay for at least some of the information I want. I don’t expect all information to be free. I don’t think the fact that information is easily copied and re-used means information “wants” to be free. In other words, I think there is a market here. And I don’t think the lack of one is proof that one can’t be built.

What we need first isn’t better offerings from Google, but better signaling from the demand side of the marketplace. That’s what I’m try to do right now, by signaling my willingness to pay something for information that nobody is currently selling at any price. We need to work on systems that make both signaling and paying possible — on the buyer’s terms, and not just the seller’s.

This is a big part of what VRM, or Vendor Relationship Management is about. Development is going on here. EmanciPay, for example, should be of interest to anybody who would like to see less money left on the market’s table.

Bonus link.


A few minutes ago I saw Stephen Hawking trending on Twitter, clicked on the link, and found myself on the Twitter Search page, where the two top tweets from news organizations were these:

hawking search

HuffPo’s link goes to a brief story with no links to any sources. I see there’s a tiny AP symbol next to the dateline. Does this mean it’s an AP story? I guess so, but the AP symbol is not linked to anything. So I go to the AP site, look it up, and sure enough: it is an AP story. Here’s the second paragraph:

In an interview published Monday in The Guardian newspaper, the 69-year-old says the human brain is a like a computer that will stop working when its components fail.

No link to the Guardian story there, either. Or to anything.

So I go to the CBS News tweet, and find the shortlink leads to this story, where the second paragraph reads,

In an interview published in the Guardian, Hawking – author of the bestselling “A Brief History of Time” – said that when the brain ceases to function, that’s it.

Kudos to CBS for linking to a source, and especially for breaking ranks with other news outfits that only (or mostly) link to their own stuff. The NYTimes and the Washington Post are two familiar offenders, but not-linking and self-linking are the norms. (Less so for Guardian, which has always been much farther ahead of the curve than other major papers. Blogs at the papers, such as , link generously. But these are exceptions to the rules that seem to govern the paper’s ink-based sections.)

On the whole, mainstream media have had a passive-aggressive approach to the Web ever since they were first challenged by it, in the mid-’90s. Even now, in 2011, they’re still trying to shove the Web’s genie back in the old ink bottle. They do it with paywalls, with schemes to drag your eyes past pages and pages of advertising, and (perhaps worst of all) by leaving out hyperlinks. Never mind that the hyperlink is a perfect way to practice one of journalism’s prime responsibilities: citing sources. Or, by another verb, attriibuting.

Maybe they take too seriously ‘s “Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy” thesis (#7) in , and want to stay on (or crawl to the) top of whatever heaps they occupy.

The reasons I’ve usually heard for not linking, or for only linking to internal pages, is that the journal’s site “needs” to be “sticky,” to “drive traffic” past ads, and to maximize the time spent by readers on the site. (Nobody defends the tracking of readers.) Whatever the rationale, not-linking compromises an online journal’s editorial mission — especially if not-linking is policy and not just habit. (I think, for example, that with Fast Company it’s policy. For example, all the links in this story go to other Fast Company stories.)

So now I’m wondering if anybody has researched, or would be interested in researching, the practice of linking to sources by online journals — especially by mainstream news sites. Would this be a job for , I wonder? (I’ll bring it up with my friends there at the when I’m there tomorrow.)

[Later… ] see C.W. Anderson‘s comment below, which points to this Niemann piece by Jonathan Stray and this book by Joseph Turow and i (a colleague who will receive the Gene Burd Urban Journalism Research Prize for the Best Dissertation in Journalism Studies here in Boston on the 27th of this month).

Also see what Kevin Anderson writes here, and the comments below. Excellent conversation, all around.

We’re doing something different at next week’s IIW: inviting investors. So here’s a pitch that should resonate with investors — especially in Silicon Valley, where IIW happens (appropriately, at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View)…

Here’s a chance to check in on development work on a huge new disruptive market play: empowering customers as independent players in the marketplace, and building new businesses that serve liberated customers who want choices other than those between silos and walled gardens.

We’re talking here about equipping demand to drive supply, rather than just the reverse. (Which is fine and necessary, but it’s been done. A lot.)

We’re talking about creating tools and services proving at last that free customers are more valuable than captive ones.

We’re talking about how much more can happen in a marketplace where customers collect, control and selectively share their own data, for their own purposes — which nobody on the vendor side needs to guess about, because the customer knows, has the intent, and has the money.

We’ve been working on these tools for awhile now. My own work, both through IIW (which I help organize) and ProjectVRM at Harvard’s Berkman Center, has been to encourage development of tools that liberate and empower customers in the marketplace. Thanks also to the good work of allied efforts, many of these tools now exist, and more are coming along.

These tools fall into many categories. Some are open source efforts that equip developers with essential building material. Some are commercial efforts at the angel or pre-angel stages. Some are already funded. Some are existing businesses looking for partners. Whatever breed they are, all should be interesting to investors looking to place bets on customers, and on companies that align with customer interests and intentions in the marketplace.

IIW — which stands for Internet Identity Workshop — has always been about development. Since 2005 we’ve been getting together twice a year to share ideas and move work forward. As a workshop, it’s organized as an unconference. No speakers, no panels. Participants suggest topics and everybody breaks out to rooms and tables where those topics get discussed, whiteboards get marked up, and in many cases code gets shown and improved.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, May 3 and 4, the workshop will follow the usual routine. But on Thursday, May 5, we’ll visit a new topic which we’re calling “Yukon”: a one-word play on the line, “You control your own data.” As it says here,

Something New: IIW + Yukon: One of the longtime themes of IIW is how identity and personal data intersect. Many important discussions about Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) have also taken place at IIW. In recognition of how personal data and identity are intertwined, the third day of the IIW, May 5, will be designated “IIW + Yukon” and will stress the emerging personal data economy. The primary theme will be personal data control and leverage, where the individual controls and drives the use of their own data, and data about them held by other parties.

This isn’t social. It’s personal. This day you can expext open-space style discussions of personal data stores (PDS), PDS ecosystems, and VRM. One purpose of Yukon is to start to focus on business models and value propositions, so we will specifically be reaching out to angels and VC’s who are intersted in personal data economy plays and inviting them to attend.

Whether or not you’re an investor, or just friends with some (as pretty much all of us are these days), you’re invited. Looking forward to seeing you there.

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That’s my Idea For a Better Internet. Here’s what I entered in the form at

Define the Internet.

There is not yet an agreed-upon definition. Bell-heads think it’s a “network of networks,” all owned by private or public entities that each need to protect their investments and interests. Net-heads (that’s us) think it’s a collection of protocols and general characteristics that transcend physical infrastructure and parochial interests. If you disagree with either of the last two sentences, you demonstrate the problem, and why so many arguments about, say, “net neutrality,” go nowhere.

The idea is to assign defining the Internet to students in different disciplines: linguistics, urban planning, computer science, law, business, engineering, etc. Then bring them together to discuss and reconcile their results, with the purpose of informing arguments about policy, business, and infrastructure development. The result will be better policy, better business and better deployments. Or, as per instructions, “a better place for everyone.”

There should be fun research possibilities in the midst of that as well.

It’s a Berkman project, but I applied in my capacity as a CITS fellow at UCSB. I’ll be back in Santa Barbara for the next week, and the focus of my work there for the duration has been Internet and Infrastructure. (And, if all goes as planned, the subject the book after the one I’m writing now.)

So we’ll see where it goes. Even if it’s nowhere, it’s still a good idea, because there are huge disagreements about what the Internet is, and that’s holding us back.

I gave Why Internet & Infrastructure Need to be Fields of Study as my background link. It’s in sore need of copy editing, but it gets the points across.

Today’s the deadline. Midnight Pacific. If you’ve got a good idea, submit it soon.

After your taxes, of course. (Richard, below, points out that Monday is the actual Tax Day.)

What started as plain old Web search has now been marginalized as “organic”. That’s because the plain old Web — the one Tim Berners-Lee created as a way to hyperlink documents — has become commercialized to such an extent that the about the only “organic” result reliably rising to first-page status is Wikipedia.

Let’s say your interest in “granite” and “Vermont” is geological, rather than commercial. The first page of Google results won’t help much if your interest goes beyond visiting a headstone mineSame goes for Bing. I notice this change because it’s becoming harder and harder for me to do casual research on geology (or most other topics that interest me) on the Web.

Yesterday Vivek Wadhwa tweeted a perfect line: “Google is paying content farms to pollute the web”. This is true, yet the problem is bigger than that. The Web is changing from a world wide library with some commercial content to a world wide mall with intellectually interesting publications buried under it, in virtual catacombs. Google’s mission of “organizing all the world’s information” is still satisfied. The problem is that most of that information — at least on the Web — is about selling something. The percentage of websites that are Web stores goes up and up. SEO only makes the problem worse.

The Berkman Center has a project that should encourage thinking about solving this problem, along with many others. Specifically,

The Berkman Center and Stanford Law School are pleased to announce a new initiative in which we invite the world to submit their ‘Ideas for a Better Internet.’ We are seeking out brief proposals from anyone with ideas as to how to improve the Internet. Students at Harvard and Stanford will work through early next year to implement the ideas selected. Interested parties should submit their ideas at by Friday, April 15. Please spread the word far and wide, and follow us on Twitter at

So get your ideas in by Tax Day.

is ahead of his time again.  nailed computing as a utility, long before “the cloud” came to mean pretty much the same thing. His latest book, , explored the changes in our lives and minds caused by moving too much of both online — again before others began noticing how much the Net was starting to look like a handbasket.

Thus The Shallows comes to mind when I read Alice Gregory’s in . An excerpt:

I have the sensation, as do my friends, that to function as a proficient human, you must both “keep up” with the internet and pursue more serious, analog interests. I blog about real life; I talk about the internet. It’s so exhausting to exist on both registers, especially while holding down a job. It feels like tedious work to be merely conversationally competent. I make myself schedules, breaking down my commute to its most elemental parts and assigning each leg of my journey something different to absorb: podcast, Instapaper article, real novel of real worth, real magazine of dubious worth. I’m pretty tired by the time I get to work at 9 AM.

In-person communication feels binary to me now: subjects are either private, confessional, and soulful or frantically current, determined mostly by critical mass, interesting only in their ephemeral status. Increasingly these modes of talk seem mutually exclusive. You can pull someone aside—away from the party, onto the fire escape—and confess to a foible or you can stay inside with the group and make a joke about something everyone’s read online. “Maybe you keep the wrong company,” my mother suggests. Maybe. But I like my friends! We can sympathize with each other and feel reassured that we’re not alone in our overeager consumption, denigrated self-control, and anxiety masked as ambition.

Here’s Nick:

On the Net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from tap to tap. We transfer only a small jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream.

Psychologists refer to the information flowing into our working memory as our cognitive load. When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to process and store it, we’re unable to retain the information or to draw connections with other memories. We can’t translate the new material into conceptual knowledge. Our ability to learn suffers, and our understanding remains weak. That’s why the extensive brain activity that Small discovered in Web searchers may be more a cause for concern than for celebration. It points to cognitive overload.

The Internet is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it. There’s the problem of hypertext and the many different kinds of media coming at us simultaneously. There’s also the fact that numerous studies—including one that tracked eye movement, one that surveyed people, and even one that examined the habits displayed by users of two academic databases—show that we start to read faster and less thoroughly as soon as we go online. Plus, the Internet has a hundred ways of distracting us from our onscreen reading. Most email applications check automatically for new messages every five or 10 minutes, and people routinely click the Check for New Mail button even more frequently. Office workers often glance at their inbox 30 to 40 times an hour. Since each glance breaks our concentration and burdens our working memory, the cognitive penalty can be severe.

The penalty is amplified by what brain scientists call . Every time we shift our attention, the brain has to reorient itself, further taxing our mental resources. Many studies have shown that switching between just two tasks can add substantially to our cognitive load, impeding our thinking and increasing the likelihood that we’ll overlook or misinterpret important information. On the Internet, where we generally juggle several tasks, the switching costs pile ever higher.

The Net’s ability to monitor events and send out messages and notifications automatically is, of course, one of its great strengths as a communication technology. We rely on that capability to personalize the workings of the system, to program the vast database to respond to our particular needs, interests, and desires. We want to be interrupted, because each interruption—email, tweet, instant message, RSS headline—brings us a valuable piece of information. To turn off these alerts is to risk feeling out of touch or even socially isolated. The stream of new information also plays to our natural tendency to overemphasize the immediate. We crave the new even when we know it’s trivial.

And so we ask the Internet to keep interrupting us in ever more varied ways. We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the fragmentation of our attention, and the thinning of our thoughts in return for the wealth of compelling, or at least diverting, information we receive. We rarely stop to think that it might actually make more sense just to tune it all out.

Try writing about the Net and tuning it out at the same time. Clearly Nick can do that, because he’s written a bunch of books about the Net (and related matters) while the Net’s been an available distraction. Meanwhile I’ve spent most of the past year writing just one book, fighting and often losing against constant distraction. It’s very hard for me to put the blinders on and just write the thing. In the last few months what I’ve succeed in doing, while wearing the blinders and getting most of my book writing done, is participating far less in many things that I help sustain, or that sustain me, including projects I’m working on, time with my wife, kids and grandkids, and this very blog. (Lotta white spaces on the calendar to the right there.)

On the whole I’ve been dismissive of theories (including Nick’s) about how the Net changes us for the worse, mostly because my own preoccupations, including my distractions, tend to be of the intellectually nutritive sort — or so I like to believe. That is, I’m curious about all kinds of stuff, and like enlarging the sum of what I know, and how well I know it. The Net rocks for that. Still, I see the problem. I can triangulate on that problem just from own struggles plus Alice’s and Nick’s.

used to say, “Great minds discuss ideas, mediocre minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people.” (Attributed, with some dispute, to Eleanor Roosevelt.) The Net feeds all three, but at the risk of dragging one’s mind from the great to the small. “What else are we doing on the internet if not asserting our rank?” Alice writes. (Would we ask the same about what we’re doing in a library?) Later she adds,

Sometimes I can almost visualize parts of myself, the ones I’m most proud of, atrophying. I wish I had an app to monitor it! I notice that my thoughts are homeopathic, that they mirror content I wish I weren’t reading. I catch myself performing hideous, futuristic gestures, like that “hilarious” moment three seconds into an intimate embrace in which I realize I’m literally rubbing my iPhone screen across his spine. Almost every day at 6 PM my Google Alert tells me that an “Alice Gregory” has died. It’s a pretty outdated name, and most of these obituaries, from family newsletters and local papers, are for octogenarians. I know I’m being tidy-minded even to feel a pang from this metaphor, but still . . .

It’s hard not to think “death drive” every time I go on the internet. Opening Safari is an actively destructive decision. I am asking that consciousness be taken away from me. Like the lost time between leaving a party drunk and materializing somehow at your front door, the internet robs you of a day you can visit recursively or even remember. You really want to know what it is about 20-somethings? It’s this: we live longer now. But we also live less. It sounds hyperbolic, it sounds morbid, it sounds dramatic, but in choosing the internet I am choosing not to be a certain sort of alive. Days seem over before they even begin, and I have nothing to show for myself other than the anxious feeling that I now know just enough to engage in conversations I don’t care about.

The internet’s most ruinous effect on literacy may not be the obliteration of long-format journalism or drops in hardcover sales; it may be the destruction of the belief that books can be talked and written about endlessly. There are fewer official reviews of novels lately, but there are infinitely more pithily captioned links on Facebook, reader-response posts on Tumblr, punny jokes on Twitter. How depressing, to have a book you just read and loved feel so suddenly passé, to feel—almost immediately—as though you no longer have any claim to your own ideas about it. I started writing this piece when the book came out at the end of July, and I started unwriting it almost immediately thereafter. Zeno’s Paradox 2.0: delete your sentences as you read their approximations elsewhere. How will future fiction work? Will details coalesce into aphorism? I wonder if instead of scribbling down in my notebook all the familiar aspects of girls I see on the street, as I used to, I’ll continue doing what I do now: snapping a picture and captioning it, in the words of Shteyngart, “so media.”

I’ll grant that we have problems here, but is literacy actually being ruined? Is long-format journalism actually obliterated? The New Yorker is as thick as ever with six to eight thousand word essays. Books still move through stores online and off. Our fourteen year old kid still reads piles of books, even as he spends more time online, watching funny YouTube videos and chatting with a friend three time zones away. Is he worse for that? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Not yet, anyway.

What I am sure about is this: Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr are temporary constructions on the Web, like Worlds Fairs used to be, when we still had them. The Internet is a world where all four seasons happen at once. New sites and services are like plants that germinate, grow, bud, bloom and die, over and over. Even the big trees don’t grow to the sky. We need their fruit, their shade, their wood and the humus to which they return. Do we need the other crap that comes along with it those stages? Maybe not, but we go for it anyway.

Last Tuesday gave an excellent Berkman Lunch talk titled Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity and Self-Branding in Web 2.0. The summary:

In the mid-2000s, journalists and businesspeople heralded “Web 2.0” technologies such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook as signs of a new participatory era that would democratize journalism, entertainment, and politics. By the decade’s end, this idealism had been replaced by a gold-rush mentality focusing on status and promotion. While the rhetoric of Web 2.0 as democratic and revolutionary persists, I will contend that a primary use of social media is to boost user status and popularity, maintaining hierarchy rather than diminishing it. This talk focuses on three status-seeking techniques that emerged with social media: micro-celebrity, self-branding, and life-streaming. I examine interactions between social media and social life in the San Francisco “tech scene” to show that Web 2.0 has become a key aspect of social hierarchy in technologically mediated communities.

I’ve been in and out of that scene since 1985, and I know personally a large percentage of Alice’s sources. One of them, , provided Alice with some terrific insights about how the status system works. Tara also punched out of that system not long ago, moving to Montreal and starting a company. She has also been very active in the development community, for which I am very grateful. She’s on a helluva ride.

Listening to the two Alices,  comes to mind:

A Route of Evanescence,
With a revolving Wheel –
A Resonance of Emerald
A Rush of Cochineal –
And every Blossom on the Bush
Adjusts it’s tumbled Head –
The Mail from Tunis – probably,
An easy Morning’s Ride –

Speaking of which, here’s Bill Hicks on life’s ride:

The World is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real, because that’s how powerful our minds are. And the ride goes up and down and round and round, and it has thrills and chills and is very brightly colored, and it’s very loud. And it’s fun, for a while.

Some people have been on the ride for a long time, and they’ve begun to question, ‘Is this real, or is this just a ride?’, and other people have remembered, and they’ve come back to us and they say ‘Hey, don’t worry. Don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.’ and we KILL THOSE PEOPLE.

“Shut him up! We have alot invested in this ride! SHUT HIM UP! Look at my furrows of worry. Look at my big bank account, and my family. This has to be real.”

It’s just a ride.

But we always kill those good guys who try and tell us that. You ever noticed that? And let the demons run amok. But it doesn’t matter, because … It’s just a ride.

And we can change it anytime we want. It’s only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings of money. A choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear wants you to put bigger locks on your door, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love, instead see all of us as one.

(Watch the video. It’s better.)

Social media, social networking — all of it — is just practice. It’s just scaffolding for the roller coaster we keep re-building, riding on, falling off, and re-building. That’s what we’ve been making and re-making of civilization, especially since Industry won the Industrial revolution. (That’s why we needed world’s fairs,  to show off how Industry was doing.)

You go back before that and, on the whole, life didn’t change much, anywhere. Most of our ancestors, for most of the Holocene, lived short, miserable lives that were little different than those of generations prior or hence.

Back in the ’70s I lived in a little community called Oxbow, north of Chapel Hill. My house was one off whats now called Wild Primrose Lane, in this map here. In those days the bare area in the center of that map was a farm that was plowed fresh every spring. One day while we were walking there, I picked up a six-inch spear point (or hand-held scraper) that now resides at the (one county over):

I brought it to friends in the anthropology department at UNC — associates of the great Joffre Coe — who told me it was a Guilford point, from the Middle Archaic period, which ran from 6000 to 3000 B.C. (The original color was gray, as you can see from the chipped parts. The surface color comes from what’s called patination.)

What fascinates me about this date range, which is similar to the range for other kinds of points everywhere in the world, is how little technology changed over such a long period of time. Generation after generation made the same kinds of stone tools, the same way, for thousands of years. Today we change everything we make, pretty much constantly. There was no operating among the Guilford people, or anywhere, in 5000 B.C. Today Moore sometimes seems slow.

I don’t have a conclusion here, other than to say that maybe Nick and both Alices are right, and the Net is not so ideal as some of us (me especially) tend to think it is. But I also think the Net is something we make, and not just something that makes us.

Clearly, we could do a better job. We have the tools, and we can make many more.


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