John Naughton digs into the challenges of living in an open, liberal society when everything we do, say, or feel is being stolen by governments or monetized by the services that provide what we have come to consider our collective public space:
Some years ago, when writing a book on understanding the internet, I said that our networked future was bracketed by the dystopian nightmares of two old-Etonian novelists, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. Orwell thought we would be destroyed by the things we fear, while Huxley thought that we would be controlled by the things that delight us. What Snowden has taught us is that the two extremes have converged: the NSA and its franchises are doing the Orwellian bit, while Google, Facebook and co are attending to the Huxleyean side of things.
In The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, his magisterial history of the main communications technologies of the 20th century – telephone, radio, movies and television – the legal scholar Timothy Wu discerned a pattern.
Each technology started out as magnificently open, chaotic, collaborative, creative, exuberant and experimental, but in the end all were “captured” by charismatic entrepreneurs who went on to build huge industrial empires on the back of this capture. This is what has become known as the Wu cycle – “a typical progression of information technologies: from somebody’s hobby to somebody’s industry; from jury-rigged contraption to slick production marvel; from a freely accessible channel to one strictly controlled by a single corporation or cartel – from open to closed system”.
The big question, Wu asked, was whether the internet would be any different? Ten years ago, I would have answered: “Yes.” Having digested Snowden’s revelations, I am less sure, because one of the things he has demonstrated is the extent to which the NSA has suborned the internet companies which have captured the online activities of billions of internet users. It has done this via demands authorised by the secret foreign intelligence surveillance (Fisa) court, but kept secret from the companies’ users; and by tapping into the communications that flow between the companies’ server farms across the world.
The internet companies offered us shiny new “free” services in return for our acceptance of click-wrap “agreements” which allow them to do anything they damn well please with our data and content. And we fell for it. We built the padded cells in which we now gambol and which the NSA bugs at its leisure. - John Naughton
The reason this made sense is because so much of our communications and data are now entrusted to these internet giants. Tapping into them must have seemed a no-brainer to the NSA. After all, Google and Facebook are essentially in the same business as the agency. Its mission – comprehensive surveillance – also happens to be their business model.
The only difference is that whereas the spooks have to jump through some modest legal hoops to inspect our content, the companies get to read it neat. And the great irony is that this has been made possible because of our gullibility. The internet companies offered us shiny new “free” services in return for our acceptance of click-wrap “agreements” which allow them to do anything they damn well please with our data and content. And we fell for it. We built the padded cells in which we now gambol and which the NSA bugs at its leisure.
This is the central dilemma of the social web. If we are to connect with others, we need to share our emotions, habits of mind, heart, and body, and through this sharing we can attract those that we wish to connect with, and they reciprocate. However, those providing the services through which our sociality is mediated access the catalog of what we read and gaze upon, our yearnings, actions, and our dark desires. They tap that emotional flow like a Swiss bank account, and drain it to pay for the servers, fiber, and acqui-hires behind it all. - Stowe Boyd
In our rush for “free” services, we failed to notice how we were being conned. The deal, as presented to us in the End User Licence Agreement, was this: you exchange some of your privacy (in the form of personal information) for the wonderful free services that we (Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Skype, etc) provide in return. The implication is that privacy is a transactional good – something that you own and that can be traded. But, in these contexts, privacy is an environmental good, not a transactional one. Why? Because when I use, say, Gmail, then I’m not only surrendering my privacy to Google, but the privacy of everyone who writes to me at my Gmail address. They may not have consented to this deal, but their email is being read by Google nonetheless. And before any lawyer (or Sir Malcolm Rifkind) pops up to object that having machines read one’s communications is not the same thing as having a human being do it, let me gently inquire if they are up to speed on machine-learning algorithms? The fact that Mark Zuckerberg is not sitting there sucking his pencil and reading your status updates doesn’t mean that his algorithms aren’t making pretty astute inferences from those same updates – which is why Facebook probably knows that two people are going to have an affair before they do; or why one can make interesting inferences about the nature of a couple’s marriage from inspection of their network graphs.And this is where the interests of the NSA and the big internet companies converge. For what they have both managed to do is to abolish the practice of anonymous reading which, in the good old analogue days, we regarded as an essential condition for an open, democratic society. In a networked world, the spooks and the companies know everythingyou read, and the companies even know how long you spent on a particular page. And if you don’t think that’s creepy then you haven’t been paying attention.
This is the central dilemma of the social web. If we are to connect with others, we need to share our emotions, habits of mind, heart, and body, and through this sharing we can attract those that we wish to connect with, and they reciprocate. However, those providing the services through which our sociality is mediated access the catalog of what we read and gaze upon, our yearnings, actions, and our dark desires. They tap that emotional flow like a Swiss bank account, and drain it to pay for the servers, fiber, and acqui-hires behind it all. Because everything is a market, and there is always a way to make a market on human desire and our need to find out who we are — and what it all means — through connection with others.
This is a dilemma, however, not some problem that can be solved, like a jigsaw puzzle. A radical curtailing of how Google, Facebook, and Twitter access and analyze our social exhaust may lead to the death of how social works. I fear that like Rilke feared treatment for his schizophrenia:
If you rid me of my demons, my angels might take flight, too.
With one major exception: we can certainly force our governments to end their headlong quest to create a global surveillance state in the name of the endless war on those opposed to open, liberal societies. (Which means we would wind up where we are: at war with ourselves.)
If we each personally want to trade privacy for connection, to opt to live in a new world dominated by radical openness, a state of publicy, well, that’s our choice. If you dislike how Facebook defines its rights, drop the service (I don’t use it). But, as I said, that’s a choice: to live with the dilemma — inside the dilemma — and extract from it as much (or more!) than it demands from us in exchange.
What makes us happy? It’s not money, or fame, or good looks. Hint: we are social animals.
Krystyn Heide, Creating Happiness
In 1938, Arlie Bock, the director of health services at Harvard University, pondered the same question. Bock decided medical research was too preoccupied with the sick; he wanted to study the qualities of wellness. In his words, the “combination of sentiments and physiological factors which in toto is commonly interpreted as successful living.” Happiness.
Over the course of eight decades, he and other researchers observed 268 men from their early days of college through old age, and some through the end of their lives. They were examined with everything from Rorschach tests, to psychological studies, to electroencephalographs, to “the hanging length of the scrotum.”
Some went to war, some were workaholics, some alcoholics. Four became Senators, one was elected President. Nearly a third displayed symptoms of mental illness, despite being handpicked for their “normal” qualities. Yet, some of the more detached subjects made surprising psychosocial adjustments over the course of their lifetimes. One man even attempted suicide after graduation, only to turn his life around years later after experiencing simple kindness during a hospital stay.
In the end, Harvard had compiled the most thorough longitudinal study of well-being in history. With all this research, what did they discover makes us happy?
“The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”
Every single person’s happiness, or lack thereof, was entirely dependent on their connections with other people. Money, luck, health and other seemingly obvious factors didn’t guarantee happiness. But relationships were found to be a necessity.
We can live with almost any privation, but we require relationships with others to whom we matter, where our happiness is a primary consideration for them, and their well-being is central to our sense of self.
This is the subtext animating the social web. It’s not the internet wiring, or the user experience, or even the things we talk about online. We are trying to find ourselves in others, to become enmeshed, and through that, happiness.
Stowe Boyd via twitter
Someone who hasn’t fallen for George Orwell’s trope ‘whoever is winning now will always seem to be invincible.’
Here’s Why Google and Facebook Might Completely Disappear in the Next 5 Years - Eric Jackson via Forbes
In the tech Internet world, we’ve really had 3 generations:
We will never have Web 3.0, because the Web’s dead.
- Web 1.0 (companies founded from 1994 – 2001, including Netscape, Yahoo! (YHOO), AOL (AOL), Google (GOOG), Amazon (AMZN) and eBay (EBAY)),
- Web 2.0 or Social (companies founded from 2002 – 2009, including Facebook (FB), LinkedIn (LNKD), and Groupon (GRPN)),
- and now Mobile (from 2010 – present, including Instagram).
With each succeeding generation in tech the Internet, it seems the prior generation can’t quite wrap its head around the subtle changes that the next generation brings. Web 1.0 companies did a great job of aggregating data and presenting it in an easy to digest portal fashion. Google did a good job organizing the chaos of the Web better than AltaVista, Excite, Lycos and all the other search engines that preceded it. Amazon did a great job of centralizing the chaos of e-commerce shopping and putting all you needed in one place.
When Web 2.0 companies began to emerge, they seemed to gravitate to the importance of social connections. MySpace built a network of people with a passion for music initially. Facebook got college students. LinkedIn got the white collar professionals. Digg, Reddit, and StumbleUpon showed how users could generate content themselves and make the overall community more valuable.
Yet, Web 1.0 companies never really seemed to be able to grasp the importance of building a social community and tapping into the backgrounds of those users. Even when it seems painfully obvious to everyone, there just doesn’t seem to be the capacity of these older companies to shift to a new paradigm. Why has Amazon done so little in social? And Google? Even as they pour billions at the problem, their primary business model which made them successful in the first place seems to override their expansion into some new way of thinking.
Social companies born since 2010 have a very different view of the world. These companies – and Instagram is the most topical example at the moment – view the mobile smartphone as the primary (and oftentimes exclusive) platform for their application. They don’t even think of launching via a web site. They assume, over time, people will use their mobile applications almost entirely instead of websites.
We will never have Web 3.0, because the Web’s dead.
Web 1.0 and 2.0 companies still seem unsure how to adapt to this new paradigm. Facebook is the triumphant winner of social companies. It will go public in a few weeks and probably hit $140 billion in market capitalization. Yet, it loses money in mobile and has rather simple iPhone and iPad versions of its desktop experience. It is just trying to figure out how to make money on the web – as it only had $3.7 billion in revenues in 2011 and its revenues actually decelerated in Q1 of this year relative to Q4 of last year. It has no idea how it will make money in mobile.
The failed history of Web 1.0 companies adapting to the world of social suggests that Facebook will be as woeful at adapting to social mobile as Google has been with its “ghost town” Google+ initiative last year.
The organizational ecologists talked about the “liability of obsolescence” which is a growing mismatch between an organization’s inherent product strategy and its operating environment over time. This probably is a good explanation for what we’re seeing in the tech world today.
Are companies like Google, Amazon, and Yahoo! obsolete? They’re still growing. They still have enormous audiences. They also have very talented managers.
But with each new paradigm shift (first to social, now to mobile, and next to whatever else), the older generations get increasingly out of touch and likely closer to their significant decline. What’s more, the tech world in which we live in seems to be speeding up.
People forget how indomitable AOL seemed, and the promise of Netscape and MySpace, before they fell into the dustbin. As I have said before, Facebook is the new AOL, although Johnson is making a different case for that. I have been presaging the rise of social operating systems — which would invalidate Facebook’s near-monopoly on people’s social inclinations — while he points to the rise of mobile, and says
Considering how long Facebook dragged its feet to get into mobile in the first place, the data suggests they will be exactly as slow to change as Google was to social.
And that’s is not a good place to be.
I agree with Jackson: the rate of change is not slowing, so the monopolies of today are likely to be shorter-lived than those of even a decade ago. And the new world beaters are possibly companies that don’t even exist yet, but whenever they crop up we will first notice them when they start stealing users, market, and attention from the formerly indomitable killer apps of the preceding era.
- John Battelle, Search, Plus Your World, As Long As It’s Our World
Once again, Google steps in a pile of doodoo with its maladroit efforts in trying to absorb the social web. Unwilling to simply index things and offer them up as search results, Google wants to ‘socialize’ search. What this means is that search is just another battlefield for Google to fight the war for the future against Facebook, Twitter, etc.
On one hand, you have to admit that Google faces a new world, one that is increasingly social, and the search company has to get in there. But this is not the way to do it.
I continue to be amazed that Google doesn’t look at its email and calendar apps as a good place to build social, instead of dicking around with search.
Jeremiah Owyang wants to declare the end of the golden age of tech blogging, or, even more portentously, he says
The tech blogosphere, as we know it, is over.
This could be interpreted in a number of ways, but at face value — and leaving aside for the moment the specifics of his argument — I agree. The ‘blogosphere’ — that mid ’00s concept of a community of bloggers writing for each others and cross-linking through trackbacks and threaded comments — that communitarian vision has been superseded by other ideas of what is, or should be, happening, online.
However, I don’t want to adopt the metaphor that is used by people that fear the future, and long for a halcyon past. I won’t go along with the ‘golden age’ rhetoric, which is generally employed by those arguing a fall from a better past into a less virtuous present. (The concept comes from ancient Greek mythology, with its Golden, Silver, Bronze, Iron ages, and then the present, debased age.)
I prefer Winston Churchill’s trope:
Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
Churchill was, of course, referring to a turning point in the struggle with Germany during World War II, while we are discussing the transition from a more primitive and less social phase in the web revolution, into something more complex and, ultimately, more rewarding.
The points that Jeremiah makes to support his argument are very tactical, not looking at the strategic changes going on technologically or societally. His ‘trends’ aren’t really trends, but narrow extrapolations from recent events masquerading as business advice. They are these, in brief:
Trend 1: Corporate acquisitions stymie innovation
Trend 2: Tech blogs are experiencing major talent turnover
Trend 3: The audience needs have changed, they want: faster, smaller, and social
Trend 4: As space matures, business models solidify – giving room for new disruptors
These observations are interesting as far as they go, but aside from the ‘faster, small, and social’ I don’t think these are major, in any sense.
I’d like to offer a few trends that may be implied by Jeremiah’s lists or by the comments of various bloggers that he cites, but aren’t really characterized very well in his post.
It’s obvious that Jeremiah is caught up in the issues confronting three groups of web denizens posting their contributions posting on technology platforms based on a now well-established model of web publishing, which we call blogging. This is unexamined in his piece, but the model of a website made up of chronologically ordered posts with comments in a thread on each piece, and a variety of navigation or advertising widgets in the margin may be getting tired, and may not gibe with other modern advances in online media dynamics. At any rate, Owyang’s concerns seem to be directed toward three constituencies:
He doesn’t seem particularly concerned about the problems of major media companies, which continue to be deadly serious, nor does he refer to the notable advances that media companies like The Atlantic have accomplished. Nor does he spend much time talking about the technology companies — like Tumblr, Twitter, and Flipboard — that are involved in the tectonic changes going on today; changes that make the ebb and flow of small-potato business models surrounding tech blogging look like the scrambling of ants underneath the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Yes, we are veering into a new era of web media; and it’s about goddamned time.
Here’s a few of the most powerful trends, in summary:
Obviously, Owyang and those leaving comments on his post weren’t necessarily treating these trends. The post was ostensibly about the changes in the world of tech blogging, after all. But I don’t see how you can meaningfully explore that niche without the larger context.
Brian Solis sees the larger context as necessary as well:
I recently wrote about my thoughts on the state and future of blogs, which is of course far grander than the world of tech blogging. And as you can see, blogging is alive and clicking.
Yes, micromedia, video, and social transactions/actions are breaking through our digital levees and causing our social streams to flood. And, yes, Flipboard, Zite, and the like (get it?), are forcing our consumption patterns into rapid-fire actions and reactions. You have a choice. You are either a content creator, curator or consumer. You can be all of course. But, think about this beyond the mental equivalent of 140 characters. What do you stand for and what do you want to become known for? The answer is different for each of us. But, content, context, and continuity are all I need to learn, make decisions and in turn inspire others.
I don’t buy the consumer angle — after all, every person is curating for at least one person, themselves — so I consider it a cardinality distinction: curating for one is not appreciably different than curating for two or ten. All curators — of whatever degree of discernment — started by curating for themselves. But Solis clearly gets the big picture, and I agree totally that what is bubbling up today will make the web a place where we continue to come to learn, make decisions, and connect with — and perhaps inspire? — others to do the same.
David Ellis, cited by Janna Anderson, Lee Rainie in Respondents’ thoughts, The Future Of Social Relations
Barry Wellman, cited by Janna Anderson and Lee Rainie, Respondents’ thoughts, The Future Of Social Relations
When asked to assess the impact of the internet on the ability of social, civic, professional, religious or spiritual groups to engage in a number of activities, Americans express generally positive views. Nearly seven in ten (68%) believe that the internet has a “major impact” on the ability of groups to communicate with their members, and roughly six in ten feel that the internet has a “major impact” on the ability of groups to draw attention to issues (62%), connect with other groups (60%), impact society at large (59%), and raise money (52%). For each of the nine group-based activities we measured in this survey, three-quarters of Americans or more feel that the internet has had at least some impact (if only a minor one) on the activity in question.
With poll numbers like that the internet should run for president.
The N+1 editors spend a great deal of time discussing the NY Times in a piece ostensibly about the rise of the web as a social movement, and not that much about the social movement side of things.