Knowledge, unlike information, is a human characteristic; there can be information no one knows, but there can’t be knowledge no one knows.

Clay Shirky

That’s because knowledge is tied to belief: justified belief. And beliefs are human, only, so far.

The single most important thing for an individual to do is to recognize that society is not made up of individuals but of groups, some tight and some loose. Democracies are not markets, divided into atomized and rational actors. Democracies are coalitional, and the big thing we lose with the continuing shrinking of the importance of newspapers is having a place where news junkies and sports fans both occasionally see the same front page.

Clay Shirky on the Internet as a Distractor and Disruptor - Frog Design - The Atlantic (via infoneer-pulse)

This is an important aspect on human society, but how does it relate to the observations from the discussions around the wisdom of crowds?

(via futuramb)

Actually, Shirky is conflating some things here. We should parse our how people connect through social networks and how ‘democracies’ work. I am going to have to read the whole thing and get back to you.

(via futuramb)

The Unrevolution? A Logical Disquisition.

Nick Carr takes a swipe at business book authors who talk about what’s going on with the web as a revolution while at the same time suggesting that conventional business might be able to eke some coin out of it, too. This juxtaposition of thoughts supposedly invalidates the claim that it’s a revolution. The books in question — Steve Berlin Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, Tapscott’s Macrowikinomics and What’s Yours Is Mine by Botsman and Rogers — fail because of this self-defeating contradiction, or so he argues:

Nicholas Carr, The unrevolution

What most characterizes today’s web revolutionaries is their rigorously apolitical and ahistorical perspectives - their fear of actually being revolutionary. To them, the technological upheaval of the web ends in a reinforcement of the status quo. There’s nothing wrong with that view, I suppose - these are all writers who court business audiences - but their writings do testify to just how far we’ve come from the idealism of the early days of cyberspace, when online communities were proudly uncommercial and the free exchanges of the web stood in opposition to what John Perry Barlow dismissively termed “the Industrial World.” By encouraging us to think of sharing as “collaborative consumption” and of our intellectual capacities as “cognitive surplus,” the technologies of the web now look like they will have, as their ultimate legacy, the spread of market forces into the most intimate spheres of human activity.

This is an echo of Malcolm Gladwell’s recent unartful protest against the social revolution online (see Weak Ties And revolutions (With A Little ‘R’)), where he bellyflopped by arguing that real revolutions don’t tweet, instead they have central committees handing down diktats, and anything that doesn’t walk and talk like his favorite examples of revolutions, aren’t.

But Carr tries to pull off an appeal to hypocrisy. He makes the case that a cadre of authors (Steven Berlin Johnson, Clay Shirky, Tapscott, and many others) have argued that there are large extra-market motivations for people’s participation in open web movements: many are not in it for the money. So, when a web advocate mentions that plain vanilla capitalist interest can also be served by the web revolution, Carr implies that this is inconsistent with their first assertion in some way, and therefore the entire edifice of the argument is illogical, and ipso facto, the notion that this is a revolution, upsetting the status quo, falls on it’s face.

This is like saying that kittens born in an oven are muffins, however.

Carr’s argument is specious, and we can all go back to reading the morning paper or walking the dog. Just because some capitalists can benefit from Linux, crowdsourcing, or the existence of the blogosphere doesn’t mean that nothing new and different is happening online.

Perhaps this is just another proof of The Law of the Infinite Cornucopia, dreamed up by Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski: there is a limitless supply of arguments for any viewpoint. Those who want to believe what’s going on online is just reheated leftovers will never stop their finger wagging.

Weak Ties And revolutions (With A Little ‘R’)

27 September 2010:

Malcolm Gladwell wants to pop the bubble surround social media’s supposed role in capital ‘R’ Revolutions, as in the #iranelections.

I think the real story is in lower case ‘r’ revolutions, but here’s his core thesis:

Malcolm Gladwell, Twitter, Facebook, and social activism

The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coördinate, and give voice to their concerns. When ten thousand protesters took to the streets in Moldova in the spring of 2009 to protest against their country’s Communist government, the action was dubbed the Twitter Revolution, because of the means by which the demonstrators had been brought together. A few months after that, when student protests rocked Tehran, the State Department took the unusual step of asking Twitter to suspend scheduled maintenance of its Web site, because the Administration didn’t want such a critical organizing tool out of service at the height of the demonstrations. “Without Twitter the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy,” Mark Pfeifle, a former national-security adviser, later wrote, calling for Twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools. Facebook warriors go online to push for change. “You are the best hope for us all,” James K. Glassman, a former senior State Department official, told a crowd of cyber activists at a recent conference sponsored by Facebook, A. T. & T., Howcast, MTV, and Google. Sites like Facebook, Glassman said, “give the U.S. a significant competitive advantage over terrorists. Some time ago, I said that Al Qaeda was ‘eating our lunch on the Internet.’ That is no longer the case. Al Qaeda is stuck in Web 1.0. The Internet is now about interactivity and conversation.”

These are strong, and puzzling, claims. Why does it matter who is eating whose lunch on the Internet? Are people who log on to their Facebook page really the best hope for us all? As for Moldova’s so-called Twitter Revolution, Evgeny Morozov, a scholar at Stanford who has been the most persistent of digital evangelism’s critics, points out that Twitter had scant internal significance in Moldova, a country where very few Twitter accounts exist. Nor does it seem to have been a revolution, not least because the protests—as Anne Applebaum suggested in the Washington Post—may well have been a bit of stagecraft cooked up by the government. (In a country paranoid about Romanian revanchism, the protesters flew a Romanian flag over the Parliament building.) In the Iranian case, meanwhile, the people tweeting about the demonstrations were almost all in the West. “It is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right,” Golnaz Esfandiari wrote, this past summer, in Foreign Policy. “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.” The cadre of prominent bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan, who championed the role of social media in Iran, Esfandiari continued, misunderstood the situation. “Western journalists who couldn’t reach—or didn’t bother reaching?—people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection,” she wrote. “Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.”

Some of this grandiosity is to be expected. Innovators tend to be solipsists. They often want to cram every stray fact and experience into their new model. As the historian Robert Darnton has written, “The marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past—even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the Internet.” But there is something else at work here, in the outsized enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.

Luckily, Gladwell is here to help us remember what activism is (wink). He lays some solid research into the top-down command-and-control of the Montgomery bus boycott, and contrasts that with the weak ties inherent in online social networks, and concludes — perhaps a bit too hastily — that social tools can’t possibly be instrumental in revolutions like the civil rights movement, which was based on a top-down organization:

The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.

This is in many ways a wonderful thing. There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.

Well, they haven’t in the past, perhaps in part because these tools have only existed for a few years. Certainly, Martin Luther King and the civil rights leaders didn’t have them as an option.

His other anecdotes — pulled from Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody — are not serious counter examples: they are tales about people looking for their lost cell phones, or trying to get bone marrow donors: not anything revolutionary.

Ultimately his piece relies on the reader: if you buy his argument, he’s made his case. But I believe that we will have to wait for deeper research into the shape and arc of today’s revolutions, which increasingly are likely to be diffused, like networks, and relying on weak ties.

Consider the use of cell phone minutes as a currency in Kenya as a means of getting around high banking charges. This is a revolution for the poor people there, and is linked to social networks connected by cell phones. This became critically important when the country was wracked by violence in 2008, and it became dangerous to carry money and nearly impossible to send it to relatives.

And an example of a little r revolution, more close to home: the Tea Partiers. Yes, I know there are some fat cats bank rolling some aspects of the Tea Party, but mostly it looks like a grass roots revolution that is remaking (or unmaking?) the GOP. Leaving aside their agenda, its evident that weak tie networks, supported by social tools online, are at the core of that movement’s startling rise to prominence, without a central command-and-control structure. In fact, it looks a lot like his characterization of the Palestine Liberation Organization:

The Palestine Liberation Organization originated as a network, and the international-relations scholars Mette Eilstrup-Sangiovanni and Calvert Jones argue in a recent essay in International Security that this is why it ran into such trouble as it grew: “Structural features typical of networks—the absence of central authority, the unchecked autonomy of rival groups, and the inability to arbitrate quarrels through formal mechanisms—made the P.L.O. excessively vulnerable to outside manipulation and internal strife.”

Given my personal political views, I hope that the Tea Party movement suffers the problems of starting out as a network, but looked at dispassionately, their internal lack of a top-down control structure hasn’t stopped their impact on the American political system.

I think Gladwell needs to look at the little r revolutions going on all around us, like the urban food movement, Grameen-style microloan systems, and others. This is where social tools will change the world, one weak tie at a time.

Update 2 October 2010

It looks like people finally had their copies of the New Yorker delivered, like David Weinberger who agrees with my use of the Tea Party as an example of recent small ‘r’ revolutionary activities via social tools:

David Weinberger, Gladwell discovers it takes more than 140 characters to overturn a government

Gladwell is right, in my view, to debunk the over-enthusiastic belief that the Net would sweep away all traditional institutions that stand in the way of the great populist uprising.

He is also right to debunk the notion that the Net would replace all traditional forms of governance and organization.

At this point, however, those are strawpeople. Find me someone who believes that these days.

The more plausible belief is that for the most entrenched of institutions, the Net has an effect by changing the ecology around them. So, citizen journalism has not obviated the need for professional journalism and traditional news media. Rather, a new symbiotic ecology (hmm, mixing metaphors) has arisen. Likewise, amateur scientists have not replaced professional scientists and their institutions, but the new ecology allows for the interaction of everyone with an interest, and this is changing how science is done, how it is evaluated, and how it has an effect. Likewise, the Dean campaign — and every national campaign after it — understood that it was not enough to have a social network, but that that network must be moved to take action out in the real streets of America.

Likewise, I venture that few believe that Facebook or Twitter on their own is going to bring about revolutionary political change. But that doesn’t mean that political change is unaffected by them. As the Tea Party looks like it’s rolling to victory in 2010, try to imagine that it could exist much less succeed without social media. It also needed money from Big Interests, the attention of mainstream media, and non-Net communication channels. But, who is arguing otherwise? The ecology has changed.

And also Leo Mirani of the Guardian, who uses the Kashmir crisis as a counterexample to Gladwell’s dismissals:

in claiming that all social networks are good for is “helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teenage girls”, Gladwell ignores the true significance of social media, which lies in their ability to rapidly spread information about alternative points of view that might otherwise never reach a large audience. Gladwell quotes Golnaz Esfandiari in Foreign Policy as asking why “no one seemed to wonder why people trying to co-ordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi”. The answer, as supplied by a friend from Tehran in June last year, is simple: “We need to be seen and heard by the world, we need all the support we can get. If the governments [of the west] refuse to accept the new government, it’s gonna be meaningful for the movement, somehow.”

A more recent example is Kashmir, where this summer’s protests gained widespread media coverage both in India and internationally. But Kashmir has been protesting for 20 years, with some of the biggest demonstrations occurring in 2008. What changed this year is that urban, middle-class India, traditionally uninterested in news from Kashmir except when we’re at war with Pakistan, was for the first time able to see and hear the other side of the story. Facebook users in India rose from 0.7 million in summer 2008, to 3 million in 2009, to 13 million today.

On Twitter, it is possible to follow journalists tweeting live from Srinagar. On Facebook, it is hard to avoid mentions of Kashmir or links to articles on websites you wouldn’t otherwise have heard of. YouTube is littered with videos of protests in Kashmir. And when clips of human rights violations are taken down, Facebook is where you find new links.

The mainstream press in India, like its middle-class readers, is nationalistic and unquestioning on the subject of Kashmir. Allegations of human rights abuses are rarely reported, let alone investigated. But this year, even the Times of India, purveyor of “sunshine news”, published a report claiming that for the first time, more civilians in Kashmir had been killed by the Indian state than by militants.

"We seem to have forgotten what activism is," writes Gladwell. If activism is defined only as taking direct action and protesting on the streets, he might be right. But if activism extends to changing the minds of people, to making populations aware of what their governments are doing in their name, to influencing opinion across the world, then the revolution will be indeed be tweeted.

update 2 October 2010

Attention Convention

Over at Groundhog Day, David Rogers demonstrates that he is pretty bitter. He lumps me together with Clay Shirky and Doc Searls (which I am ok with) as fringe lunatic types who seem to think that the Internet can do good things. Yes, I think so.

[from Competing Messages: What Matters?]

[editorial: Apparently Doc called David up and asked if he wanted to work on Vendor Relationship Management, which sparked his screed.]

I pretty much can’t stand the internet anymore. At least, the things it seems to be doing to people, or the way it causes people to think.

The beret-wearing, continuous partial attention blowhard, Stowe Boyd, embraces Marshall McLuhan’s view that we make our tools and then our tools shape us. And I think that’s true. But like all visionaries and advocates who try to sell their expertise and insight to those discerning enough to recognize the clarity of their vision and the keenness of their insight, they never think past the end of their nose.

[It’s a cap on backwards, not a beret.]

We created the automobile, and the automobile changed our culture and civilization far more than one might have anticipated from such a simple artifact. Where were the advocates who foretold the rise of suburbs, the traffic jam, carbon emissions, forty to fifty thousand deaths every year? Where were the visionaries who offered the insight into the changes in our architecture, or the stress of a daily two-hour commute?

And all those things are, of course, merely peripheral changes. Changes to how we do things, not what we do. But, of course, many people seem to believe that how we do things is “everything.” As in, “This changes everything.” (Pant, pant.) Or “the world.” Did the automobile “change the world?” I’m not so sure.

[Um… David… I am not advocating an automobile-based society. Oh, I guess it’s some kind of analogy. But could you please thread it together for me? I am suggesting that exactly the sort of thing you talk about happens. For example, the rise of cell phones has changed social relations. There is good and bad involved, depending on your viewpoint.]

Then there’s that internet sage, Clay Shirky, with his pithy analysis of the criticism of the whole “Web 2.0” phenomenon - “Old Revolutions, Good; New Revolutions, Bad” with his illuminating insight that, “This improved ability to find both content and people is one of the core virtues of our age.” One wonders how much of a “virtuous” age ours may be, when “finding content and people” is considered a virtue. Shirky also illuminated the “virtues” of youth in another piece, because “old” people have “cemented past experience into knowledge.” Thus, old people have cement in their heads. Must be why we “nod off” so often.

[Um… David… what’s wrong with finding content and people? You lost me. And, the fact that youth has virtues does not mean that being old is bad.]

The thing about Boyd and Shirky is that they’re competitors in an economic environment. The new and the novel is their raw material, and they produce “analysis” that “explains” the new and the novel to “the rest of us.” Naturally, to make the new and the novel more appealing, better able to seize and hold your attention, it has to be “good,” maybe even “virtuous.” So competition distorts how some choose to perceive change.

Of course, change is inevitable, and maybe it’s neither good nor bad, or perhaps it’s almost certainly both. But if someone speaks up and criticizes the visionaries and their products, well then they’re labeled trolls, and thus, not to be taken seriously. They’re harshing our buzz, man.

[I missed the slight of hand where Clay and I become competitors. I have always thought of Clay as a collaborator in a very loose sense: we are often talking about the same things in a similar way. He made ‘social software’ a well understood concept; and in 1999 I introduced the term ‘social tools’ — we have been pushing at similar ideas. But I don’t view it as a competition, and I doubt he does either.

Nor do I think that I am explaining to the ‘rest of us’ — I am involved in a line of public inquiry, and the interaction I have with the community involved in that discussion is the single most important source of insight and inspiraiton I have encountered.

But I agree with you about trolls. There are people out there who are the enemies of the future (as Virginia Postrel styled it in her book of the same name), and they need to be outed whenever possible.]

Competition. We live in a competitive environment. I think it’s a consequence of the law of natural selection. Various groups of our species compete in different ways. Most seem to be competing economically, in the commercial sphere. Others are competing in the political sphere. Although violence plays a role in both spheres. We can’t seem to escape from competition. It’s in our genes.

Doc wondered if I might be willing to help or contribute somehow to the conversation about vendor relationship management. I told him I was skeptical. I think anything that facilitates commercial interactions, does so at the expense of social ones. It’s not that I regard all companies as “evil,” though most of them are far from “virtuous.” As I explained to him, even if all companies were “good,” they still must compete with one another for our time and attention. And the universe of competing commercial entities seems to grow without limit; and they are all learning organisms, so they adapt to changes in their environment, and exploit anything that can give them a commercial advantage.

I’ve explained here many times, and did so again to Doc in conversation, that the notion of “authority” is an important one, one that requires a clear understanding. But because we live in a competitive, increasingly commercial society, important ideas are exploited and distorted to try and achieve a competitive advantage. I again pointed to Technorati as an example, and their claim to being “the recognized authority” on something, while simultaneously - and on a totally different page - disclaiming any responsibility for relying on that “authority.” It totally guts the notion of authority, all for the sake of Technorati looking a little more competitive.

We should all be offended, but we aren’t. We say, “It’s just marketing.”

And then we market ourselves into unnecessary wars, and we wonder how we got here.

None of this VRM, or Web 2.0 bullshit is important. It’s all crap. You and I have a certain amount of time here in this life. “Changing the world,” isn’t why we’re here. That’s just a line of shit they feed you, so that your time and attention and energy are devoted to serving the needs of the competing entities. We aren’t consumers, we are the consumed.

I don’t believe that wanting to change the world means capitulating to commercial interests. I don’t believe that its a line of shit we are being fed, or that I am creating a line of shit when I advocate social applications or other Web 2.0 advances.

Everyone has to decide what is important for themselves, David. Of course, authoritative voices like Doc, Clay, and, yes, me might point the way to certain technologies or tools that we believe are positive, that enlarge life or make it more rich. And I believe your mean-spirited attack on the revolution we are involved in puts you into the category of troll for me.

tags: david+rogers, web+2.0, clay+shirky, doc+searls, never+feed+the+trolls, virginia+postrel, the+future+and+its+enemies, social+tools, its+not+a+beret+its+a+cap+on+backwards

On The Conference Thing: Etech, SXSW, Unconferences and Monocultures


ETech has turned into one of those events — like many others — where the real value for me is coming from the myriad conversations in the hallways. Not to detract from the presentations, per se, but that’s seems to be where the real deal is for me, here.

A few highlights from 8 March 2006:

  • At a press lunch dedicated to the upcoming Where 2.0 — now on my calendar — I met Di-Ann Eisnor, one of the founders of Platial. Several members of the fifth estate seemed intent on trying to rip her guts out because there are stalkers in the world, and they might decide to use a geolocational tool like Platial, so what is she doing about that? Wow, was that over the top, or what. Nat Torkington, the conference chair who was trying to steer the lunch discussion, finally stepped in and shut down the idiots that seemed to be clamoring for editorial review of all user content at Platial. Oh sure. Tim O’Reilly made some insightful visionary statements, but the feeding frenzy of a few self-appointed protectors of the greater geosphere really dominated the whole lunch.
  • Tom Coates of Plasticbag.org and Yahoo gave a great talk on the Web of Data, laying out principles not only of design but a higher order goal of participation in the edge-based infrastructure of Web 2.0. Nice.
  • Clay Shirky spoke, which I have already posted about (see Social Software is the Experimental Wing of Political Philosophy). Very cool.
  • Jon Udell presnted on Attention Focusing Strategies, which helped me focus my attention on the topic, at least so long as he was on the podium.
  • The Data Dump session, subtitlted Fun with Graphs and Charts, was real fun. Speakers included
    • Marc Hedlund, Entrepreneur-in-residence, O’Reilly Media — I came late, so if he presented something I missed it.
    • David Hornik, General Partner, August Capital — when the world’s funniest (and most insightful) VC looks at six months of his email content, what do we learn? VCs are lazy bastards who do nothing but talk about wine, vacations, and the occasional IPO.
    • Ian Kallen, Architect, Technorati, Inc — There’s a lot of splogs out there, but thank god they don’t cover their trails very well.
    • Eric Lunt, Co-founder and CTO, FeedBurner — Really cool visualization (with audio!) about the rise of feeds, culminating in 200,000 feeds under management at Feedburner.
    • Roger Magoulas, Director Market Research, O’Reilly Media, Inc. — what we can learn about tech trends from book sales and job postings? Ajax and Ruby are really, really hot.
    • Adam Messinger, VP, Product, Gauntlet Systems — As we always suspected, 80% of the work is done by 20% of the programmers, based on his analysis of a bunch of open source projects.
    • David L. Sifry, Founder and CEO, Technorati, Inc. — An update of his State of the Blogosphere preso, showing that, yes, the blogosphere continues to double in size every five months. Most interestingly, he answered a few questions that I sent along recently. 28% of blog posts now have tags using the rel=”tag” microformat. What he didn’t answer — he hasn’t dug out the data — are these questions:
      1. What is the average number (or distribution) of tags per tagged post?
      2. How many posts reference the average tag?

I found refuge in the hallways, since the ETech format is highly structured, and the sessions were all jammed. Most of the sessions had people sitting in the aisles and leaning against the walls. I was also surprised — it’s my first ETech — at the depressing ratio of women to men. Perhaps its inevitable that a conference that is constantly referring to its audience as the “alpha geeks” would be so skewed, but it’s still annoying to me. I am not suggesting some nefarious scheme here, to marginalize women or something, just that the whole tone of the show is hyper geeky. As a complement to that — because geeks are as conservative as cats — the structure is a series of parallel tracks just crammed with techno-goodness: technologists with a never-ending parade of powerpoints. Very little organized socialization — not even a defined IRC backchannel! My recommendation would be to go single track, and drop 2/3 of the sessions, and open up the schedule for more loose stuff: but O’Reilly is probably delivering exactly what the alpha geeks want.

Clay Shirky: Social Software is The Experimental Wing of Political Philosophy

Clay Shirky has nailed a manifesto on the door, here at the High Church of Technocracy at ETech. In a nutshell, his thesis is that we have a moral responsibility — those of us whose purpose is the development of social technologies — to explore the social contract between the users and owners of online interaction. More importantly, he calls us to a higher goal: to discover the most productive patterns for group self-moderation so that social tools can not only ‘work’ in a technological sense, but so that we can craft techniques that shape culture into positive channels. He argues that human society, as a whole, needs us to get this right, since we are in essence the experimental wing of political philosophy. His contention is that if we don’t get this right, meaning developing a Rosseau-like social contract where the rights of the individual are upheld, then we may be surrendering the future to Hobbesian tyrannies, both online and everywhere else.

I found it particularly funny that Clay used Dave Winer’s unilateral conversion of an once open mailing list into a centralized, moderated mailing list (which led to quite a howling by the members of the group) as the prototypical example of freedom devolving into tyranny.

Clay has asked us to become involved in the specification of the pattern language of moderation, which is the necessary precondition for deep understanding of the future social contract as realized in the pervasive social architecture now emerging.

To get involved, check out the wiki, which Clay says has reached the Alan Kay point — good enough to begin arguing about it — at http://social.itp.nyu.edu/shirky/wiki.

The Ten Commandments Of Social Networking

[originally published at Get Real, 22 August 2004]

Clay reprises my recent comments about Multiply and its email invitations, and does a very good job of making my argument more clear than I did, I think.

Clay Shirky

Stowe, reading my earlier Multiply rant, responds saying Multiply isn’t spam, and says that we need a statement of purpose for social networks to adhere to.

I’m more pessimistic than he; I believe that Multiply join messages are spam. Now spam has the “I know it when I see it” problem, so to talk carefully about it requires a specified definition. Here’s mine — spam is unsolicited mail, sent without regard to the particular identity of the recipient, and outside the context of an existing relationship.

Anyone sending me mail because I am on a list I haven’t asked to be on; without having a reason to think that I, in particular, would want this mail; and without us already knowing one another, is spamming me. In particular, ads sent to me as a member of a category, no matter how targeted, count, in this definition, as spam. You could be advertising a new brand of gin specially brewed for Brooklyn-dwelling Python hackers who like bagpipe music and that mail would still be spam.

If you adopt this definition, even just for the sake of argument, it’s pretty clear that Multiply fails the first and second tests. I did not ask for mail from them, and they are not sending me mail because they know me — they simply have my address on a list furnished by my friends. […] I think where Stowe and I may disagree is in point #3: do I have an existing relationship with the sender of the mail?

This is, I admit, a judgement call, and to re-phrase what I think Stowe is saying, Multiply is operating in good faith as a proxy for its users. My friends have furnished my address to Multiply, and authorized the service to contact me on their behalf. Thus the incessant messages from Multiply should be thought of as coming from my friends, and not from Multiply itself.

I hope I have characterized Stowe’s view correctly; in any case, I think Multiply fails this test as well, because I think they are engaged in a new form of targeted marketing. Jon Lebkowsky’s farewell to Multiply message includes this observation: “…next thing you know, Multiply was spamming all my Orkut contacts with a brainless marketing letter supposedly written by yours truly, only I didn’t see it until someone said no, no way, and noted the cheerful Muzak inanity of the message sent in my name.”

Clay has exactly defined the boundary cases in the ethical quagmire we are struggling with here:

  1. I have assumed that the individual adding me to their contact list at Multiply (or elsewhere) is actually an individual known to me, and therefore I would not be surprised at getting an email invitation from them. Alternatively, if the invitation is coming from a party “outside the context of an existing relationship” it *should* be considered spam. But such an activity would be spamming on the part of that party (individual or group), and not necessarily on the part of the service. For example, someone could join LinkedIn for the purpose of spamming, which would not be the fault of LinkedIn, per se.
  2. If a SNA coopts the contact list of its users and sends unknown, uneditable, and unannounced email invitations or (even worse) unsolicited advertisements for its or other services, that should be considered spam. This is what seems to have happened in Jon Lebowsky’s case, when he used the Multiply feature to invite his Orkut contacts… or so he thought. (I found that at least one of the Orkut or Friendster invitation features was not working yesterday when I was fiddling at Multiply — maybe they are revamping while this debate rages?)

I am totally opposed to parties spamming through SNAs as in case #1, and just as opposed to SNAs that meet case #2. I stated that SNAs try to make legitimate invitation of known contacts by email easy, to increase the acceptability of use. Clay argues that social connectedness should come at a slower rate, at a higher cost:

I think the growth of Friendster, one user at a time, undermines this notion, but however hard it makes it, that is a good amount of hard. Getting rapid growth one user at a time is difficult because it is supposed to be difficult. Social systems are, by definition, inefficient, and attempts to make them high throughput end up destroying them.

This last comment can be interpreted almost as a condemnation of the teflon slick feel of social networking applications, across the board, and I think gets into the guts of the problem: when social networking applications are targeted toward supporting human scale (not mass database) social networking for appropriate (non spam) purposes within the context of existing social (not commercial) relationships, things are fine. When you stray outside of any of those modifiers, it’s immoral, wrong, and possibly illegal under the CAN Spam Act.

Finally, Clay doesn’t hold with my push for a code of ethics that all should accord with (along the lines of what Duncan Work at LinkedIn recently pushed in his “Bill of Rights”), arguing for a more Darwinian solution, where the malefactors will just die off. I don’t know; I think the idea has legs, so I am going to try to boil down a short list of “do’s and don’ts” for SNAs, and promulgate it as the Ten Commandments of SNAs.

For example, Clay suggests that every email invitation from an SNA should include an explicit and easily discovered opt-out button. I strongly agree. The SNAs may want to qualify it in various ways (opt-out only for invitations from the specific sender; for a specific period of time; or for all invitations, ever), but there should be a way to opt-out, both at the SNA’s website and in every email invitation or other communication.

The Ten Commandments of Social Networking Applications (Part 1):

  1. Social networking applications shall provide explicit and easily used opt-out features; specifically, every message sent by a social networking application on behalf of users, as marketing, or for whatever purpose shall provide a mechanism for complete opt-out, as well as a means to opt-out by email and at the SNA website.
  2. SNAs shall not send messages to any user’s contacts without the explicit consent of the user, and without first displaying both the list of contacts to which the message is to be directed, as well as the complete content of the message.
  3. SNAs shall not expose any user’s contact information or the information associated with the user’s contacts to anyone other than the user without the explicit permission of the user.
  4. SNAs shall prohibit unsolicited commercial messages through their systems, and should bar or block users that try to send such messages.
  5. SNAs shall provide means so that users can block messages from specific users.
  6. SNAs shall provide users an “unlisted” capability, so that their use of the system can be undiscoverable if they wish.

Well, that’s a start. Other recommendations are cheerfully accepted.

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