Thursday, November 17, 2011

Vote "NO" on SOPA - An Open Letter to Congressman Thaddeus McCotter

An open letter the Thaddeus McCotter,
U.S. Rep. for Michigan's 11th District, and my congressional representative, whom I much admire.

Dear Congressman McCotter:

Please vote NO on SOPA (HR-3261)

Why is SOPA/Protect-IP such bad legislation?

First, let us agree that preventing online piracy is a noble and worthy goal. I don't fault legislators for trying to protect intellectual property. As is so often the case though, good intentions are no excuse for bad legislation. And SOPA is nothing if not "bad legislation".

SOPA is a bill that aims to thwart piracy by turning ISPs, website operators, credit card companies, and domain registrants into police. It guts the DMCA's "Safe Harbor" provision, opening the gateway for Hollywood to shut down websites it believes to be infringing upon intellectual property rights without due process. Lastly, it imposes a huge cost of regulatory compliance on entities that are some of our most economically vibrant, in a time when there aren't many bright spots in the economy.

As is so often the case, the damage it does won't just be to existing services, sites, and companies, but to all the innovation that will be strangled in infancy because a tech company's first hire will have to be a lawyer instead of an engineer.

Make no mistake - if this law were in place 15 years ago, there would be no YouTube, no Facebook, no Google, no iTunes, no eBay, no Craigslist, no Etsy. You could probably name the corporations and organizations that would have benefitted had their business models never been disrupted by the Internet. That list will look a lot like the list of organizations who spent $91 Million lobbying for SOPA. This is not an accident.

In 2006 Yochai Benkler wrote, in _The Wealth of Networks_:
For the most part[...] the state in both the United States and Europe has played a role in supporting the market-based industrial incumbents of the twentieth-century information production system at the expense of the individuals who make up the emerging networked information economy. Most state interventions have been in the form of either captured legislation catering to incumbents, or, at best, well-intentioned but wrongheaded efforts to optimize the institutional ecology for outdated modes of information and cultural production.
Sound familiar?

Destined to Fail

Even if SOPA passed, and all of the effects that I listed above were somehow mitigated, it wouldn't do a thing to slow down, let alone halt, piracy.

The internet is built to route around "damage". That's what it was designed for. And the internet sees censorship of this kind as damage. The major tool for "taking down" an infringing site is to claim its DNS entry (which turns a name like into an address that your computer can connect to like, and pointing it to a different IP address.

Routing around internet censorship will simply be in the form of the distibution of IP addresses instead of DNS names. We saw this effect when was "blocked" in 2010 (voluntarily, by its DNS provider). People just went to the IP address directly, and mirror sites popped up to distribute copies of the data.

This kind of "takedown" won't even slow a pirate down. But it will incur a tremendous amount of regulatory overhead for legitimate companies to contend with.

If I were addressing this plea to my friends on the left I might say that this bill is being bought and paid for with $91 Million in lobbying from the RIAA, MPAA, and Hollywood. I might say that they are the 1%, and they'd like to keep it that way, even if it were to harm the consumer, the public, the economy, and the United States.

However, this message is for the one person who has represented me best in Washington, and I know from long admiration, that you, Congressman McCotter, share many of my views from the right. Therefore I say that this legislation is nothing more than rent-seeking from a industry whose business model is failing in the face of innovation. This is the same industry who has tried to legislatively hinder everything from VCRs to MP3 players to cable television, all in the name of protecting their historically comfortable profit margins. They are unwilling or unable to innovate, and are fearful of the creative destruction that awaits them in the face of their obstinance. It's easier for them to petition Congress than it is to face the 21st century, and even if this legislation comes to pass it will do absolutely nothing to save their outdated business model. They are using their present position of relative strength to permanently hinder the one industry that, more than any other, shows promise for American workers in the 21st century.

Finally, (and only slightly in jest):

What would Youtube's fate be under SOPA if the Beatles or Roy Orbison decided that this video of your band playing FarmAid was infringing material?

Congressman McCotter, please consider voting NO on SOPA.

Thank you,
Eric Reasons
11th MI resident and proud Thaddeus McCotter supporter

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Professor Jarvis's Homework Assignment: Jobless Future?

I'm glad that Jeff Jarvis is a professor. Nobody gives great homework assignments like his. I'll welcome comments here as always, but follow the link below if you want to join in the real discussion.

Jarvis announced his intention to give the following talk at SXSW on Google+:
The SXSW proposal title is, "Honey, we shrunk the economy."
The proposal: Technology now leads to efficiency over growth. That means that we're not going to have a jobless recovery. We're going to have a jobless future. Pick any industry and see how technology, the internet, global connectedness, and transparent markets are bringing tremendous efficiency. Newspapers have shrunk by hundreds of thousands of jobs and may disappear -- while news expands at less cost. Borders, Circuit City and untold stores are gone, replaced by a new retail supply chain -- aka, Amazon. Construction has imploded and won't reinflate and recreate jobs. We will discuss the implications for business, technology, education, and policy. Instead of bailing out the old institutions -- GM, banks, even governments -- we should enable and invest in the entrepreneurs who will disrupt them. Education must shift to nurturing those entrepreneurs and retraining the jobless. We must invest in efficiency. Help me explore these ideas, this future. 
Questions I propose to address with the room:
Why is technology different now? Why isn't it creating more jobs than it kills?
How are incumbent institutions preventing change and slowing this progress?
How should government help this process? Can it?
How must education change to serve such a world?
Are we headed to an economy no longer built on growth but instead on efficiency?
And that room, I hope, will be filled with he entrepreneurs and technologists who are creating this future, the investors who are funding it, the educators who are supplying it, the government wonks who should be enabling it and the rest of us who are trying to figure it out.
First off, I'm not sure that we're destined for a jobless economy, and I'm not sure Jarvis is either, but he likes to go a bit over-the-top, (it's his shtick) so I won't quibble with the plainness of his statement.

I do have some direct comments to some of his points. Jeff's original text highlighted below:
Education must shift to nurturing those entrepreneurs and retraining the jobless. We must invest in efficiency.
Retraining can soften the blow somewhat, but let's face it--most government jobs programs are largely about digging, and then filling holes. And, not to be tautological, but if efficiency is killing jobs without replacing them, is investing in efficiency going to change that effect, or just speed it up?

On to his questions:

1) Why is technology different now? Why isn't it creating more jobs than it kills?

It may eventually build new markets we didn't know existed. The entire news/entertainement/leisure industry only popped into existence as we gained the leisure time to spend on it (See Shirky's talk about the 5-day work week and cognitive surplus). Filling our leisure time wasn't a viable market until the 20th century, and it was created out of whole cloth thanks to the technologies that enabled efficiency (i.e. the assembly line and agricultural automation). I wonder if these transitions were as smooth as they look from our viewpoint in history. Maybe people asked these exact same questions as they moved from farms to cities?

The unique problem right now is that many people think they've identified this next stage of post-industrial economy as "the knowledge economy" (something you tacitly appear to agree with when you suggest retraining), which is when the second part of the problem kicks in (Shirky's "double whammy" you commented on earlier): if we're increasingly creating and sharing for each other for free, there's going to be an economy there to retrain for? We are starting to use our leisure time to help fill the leisure time of others, thanks to the Internet. This new internet infrastructure is extremely efficient, and maintaining it can't possibly be enough of a need to employ the displaced. We need something new, and it has to be something that we're not really willing to do for free (that's why we get paid, right?)

2) How are incumbent institutions preventing change and slowing this progress?

Short answer "any way they can." The MPAA and RIAA are increasingly defending intellectual property rights in the face of a sea-change of technology that shows us how fragile and impossible it is to keep a business running when you depend on people *not* copying bits.

Software companies are increasingly engaged in ridiculous patent wars that stifle innovation instead of spur it on.

I'm not weighing in on whether intellectual property as a concept is good or bad, (I have my opinions) but I think in the face of technology today, it's simply untenable in the long run. The technology to copy bits will outstrip the technology and cost to enforce their protection. It will be increasingly diificult to impose artificial scarcity, and thus impose market forces on what are essentially ideas and expressions.

And if you think it's bad now, wait until we get 3D printers online, cheap, and ubiquitous.

3) How should government help this process? Can it? 

I divide my answer into two parts. The cynic in me says, flat out, "It won't". In 2006, Yochai Benkler wrote, in _The Wealth of Networks_:
For the most part[...] the state in both the United States and Europe has played a role in supporting the market-based industrial incumbents of the twentieth-century information production system at the expense of the individuals who make up the emerging networked information economy. Most state interventions have been in the form of either captured legislation catering to incumbents, or, at best, well-intentioned but wrongheaded efforts to optimize the institutional ecology for outdated modes of information and cultural production. 
I have found no indication that this trend is going to change.

On the other hand, the pragmatist in me says that, if there was a way that government could help, not the transition itself, but to ease the pain of it, it would be to stop trying to inflate the economy to cope with all of our debt (personal and national), and find a more meaningful way to deleverage ourselves. Many of the benefits people could see from the disruption and efficiency brought about by technology rely on lowering our cost-of-living through it. effectively deflating the economy. We may make less, nominally, but we'd spend less, thanks to efficiency being passed on to us. Let's call this the "Walmart" effect for a moment. The problem we'd have to solve is paying back all of our debts in deflated dollars. In a deflationary economy, you borrow cheap money up front, but then have to pay it back with the same "amount" (nominally) of expensive money down the road. It's a non-starter with all of us leveraged to our eyeballs. I don't see an easy way through this problem.

4) How must education change to serve such a world?

Mostly, I think our expectations of education have to change. Let's leave the skills and knowledge aside we are supposed to get from our education aside for a moment. In the 20th century, the education system was built to teach us certain intrinsic values as well as skills. In k-12, we show up on time, 5 days a week, and have a teacher broadcast accepted knowledge top-down from the front of the room, which we were quietly to consume. Then students regurgitate spoonfed answers back to verify them for quality control. This level of education would largely prepare us for blue-collar jobs.

In college we're taught, in addition, how to navigate a complicated beauracracy, get our paperwork filed the right way, and the top-down model was expanded to show that, if properly trained and credentialed, we may be able to add to that knowledge base in our professional lives. This would prepare us for white-collar jobs.

This education system was built in the 20th century for 20th century work. Entrepreneurs are almost always some form of outcast our outsider to this progression. We trained against entrepreneurship, and instead trained excellent workers. If you jumped through all the hoops the right way, you were rewarded with the reasonable expectation of a career.

We need to teach entrepreneurship, independence, and initiative from the start. I don't know how to achieve this, or if it can even be done, but I think that's the target we need to aim for.

5) Are we headed to an economy no longer built on growth but instead on efficiency?

Efficiency can fuel growth if there's a proper channel for it. When agricultural automation started taking over farms in the 19th and 20th centuries, people started to leave for the cities, to build the machines that would make our food instead of making the food directly. This produced a new set of problems as we coped with managing the needs of city life. Each new practical problem to solve created a market. We need to transport machines to the country and food back to the city. We need to store food in the city instead of consume it on the spot. We need food prepared for us. We need sanitation, advanced construction, a more concentrated police force, etc. We need services and entertainment to soak up our free time on the weekends and cope with our alienation from work that was less connected to the products of our labor (God, I sound like a Marxist). Each of these needs and desires created brand new markets, entrepreneurs, and and ever increasing need for new technology. (Whew, capitalist again.)

As we migrated to cities in the 19th and 20th centuries, for the first time ever, our life wasn't just about working sunup to sundown to put food on the table. Work was part of our lives but not the sum total. I think there's a kernel of insight here into what possibilities are next for us.

The real question is, what are the direct and personal needs of the 21st century that we need to pay people to do, and which will we do for each other for essentailly free thanks to the Internet and intrinsic motivation to create and share? What markets are going to have to spring up out of whole cloth to fill those needs and desires that we won't fill intrinsically?

Hopefully some of the very smart people listening to your talk at SXSW have some ideas.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Jobless Recovery or Jobless Future: A Reply to Jeff Jarvis

 suggests over on a Google+ post, that "We're not going to have a jobless recovery. We're going to have a jobless future. "

Back in 2009, he sent me and others off on this topic, so I thought it deserved a thorough response now that he's announced his intention to focus on the issue again. I wanted to reproduce my response here, but I encourage any readers to carry on the discussion over on his g+ post. 

Here's my response:

Jeff -- you sent me down this rabbit hole back in 2009, and I haven't emerged since. I'm glad to see you've circled back around to it, because I think it's terribly important, and few people could focus attention on it like you can.

I take it as given that disruptive innovation, particularly at present, yeilds efficiency more than it yields growth. (Mike Masnick would probably kick me in the shins for saying this so plainly, as he did here).

In many ways, however, I think Masnick is correct. The post he was responding to was focussed merely on the *threat* side of the equation. We can't forget that the upside of this disruptive efficiency is that consumers reap the benefits of it in terms of lower cost-of-living. 

So the real question becomes: can we reap the benefits at a rate that corresponds to the pain that transitioning the workforce is costing us? 

As I said in the linked post above:
"[Disruptive efficiencies] cost jobs and are not likely to replace them. Too many of these jobs relied on the traditional inefficiencies of their business models--inefficiencies that have been *eliminated*, not just shifted to new markets. The closer the markets are to intellectual property, the faster they fall.
Lastly, all of these displaced professionals are going to go seeking work in still-viable markets, if they can attempt the transition at all. The labor supply will increase as both knowledge markets and traditional markets restructure to take advantage of new efficiencies, and that restructuring will include taking advantage of the aforementioned increase in labor supply. Hours will be cut. Wages will fall. So too will the cost of living fall as these efficiencies are passed on the consumer. *The balance between these two forces will be the key to determining how painful the transition is.*"
Again, is our current economic discomfort a temporary situation, caused by the difficulties in transitioning our workforce, or is it a more permanent restructuring? The same question may have been put to a farmer at the turn of the 20th century, or (closer to home for me) a factory worker in 1980's Detroit. Today, America produces more food than it did 100 years ago, and (contrary to commonly-held belief) manufactures more than it did 25 years ago. But much like you point out in your post, increased production (in those markets) does not equal increased employment when new efficiencies are introduced.

Consumers may reap the benefits of efficiency, but can it make up for the costs in terms of employment? Finding a meaningful measurement of those two rates of change, I think, are key to properly addressing this very important predicament.


Followup questions still to be framed and wrestled with:

1) Unintended consequences of deflation:

Assuming that deflation wouldn't be so terribly if we could capture the benefits of it (i.e. Would you take a 20% pay cut if bread, housing, music, movies, etc. were 20% cheaper?), what other unintended consequences would deflation hold (since public policy at present is trying desperately to use inflation to ease our debt burden)? You see, we've already agreed to past prices for these things (largely mortgages), but would be asked to pay them back in future deflated dollars. This is a huge problem, since we're all in debt up to our ears.

2) In a world of bits. not atoms (your term, which I love, Jeff), we're increasingly creating value for each other without exchanging money. Price can't always capture value. What happens to the supply-and-demand curve when supply is practically infinite? See my post on Scarcity, Abundance, and the Knowledge Economy.


Lastly, you may want to check out this excerpt from Kevin Carson's book as well. It's barking up the same tree. It also rightfully credits you with stirring up this conversation in the first place.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Google+: Managing Community and Audience

(First, let me apologize if this post is specific to Google+, a service most people aren't even allowed in yet. However, there's already a lot of chatter about what it is and what it is not, and I wanted to collect my thoughts.)

It was sheer luck that a conversation I had a month ago led me to pen some thoughts about the qualities that can make or break social media platforms. At the time, I had no idea that Google+ was less than 30 days from launching it's "Field Test". In that post, I cite some literature on the "150-connection gap", which shows that the limit for social circles seems to settle in at about 150 real connections to real people, and that when you start interacting with more than those 150 real connections, you're acting as an Authority does to an Audience, not participating in a community/conversation. I then posit a hypothetical new social media service, and claim that if it can't "cross the 150-connection gap", then it will have a difficult time gaining traction amongst the general population. Facebook and Twitter eventually became decent at managing this dynamic. Buzz was horrible at it (more on that, below). So what can Google+ do to cross the 150-connection gap? The key is in the Circles feature, and in "re-sharing".

Will we "Make Lists"?

Mark Zuckerberg famously said "Guess what? Nobody wants to make lists."

I know it's just a single data point, but I think Gina Trapani has a pretty strong answer to that question.

So let's assume for the sake of argument, that we're willing to make lists by using Circles, because they are useful to us. How many times have you decided not to post something to twitter because the audience is too broad, won't care about what you write, or it's a little *too* personal? Let's assume we are more willing to share with an audience that we think will be more interested in the topic we're sharing. Google is betting the farm on it.

What Circles can do for us

Presently some early g+ users are complaining that the Stream is too "noisy".

Robert Scoble documents this issue well here, where he says:
So, until Google gives us the ability to control noise Google+ will continue not being used by average people (my metaphorical “yo momma and yo daddy.”
The thing is what is noise control?
Two things, one of which Google is known for:
1. Search. The ability to say “show me all cool new items that talk about venture capital.”
2. Sifting. This is similar to search, but goes beyond. “Show me all future items that talk about venture capital.”
Following someone does not necesarily corellate to targeted ideas. I follow Jeff Jarvis to hear about social media development and it's impact on disrupted institutions. I get a lot of penis news too.

Essentially, Scoble is highlighting a problem that Buzz was also notorious for: If you follow a famous person, you are beset with noise that drowns out your "real" connections, and leaves you little ability to gain topical control over what you hear from whom.

Scoble wants downstream filtering (read, "an algorithm") to help him select what to read (and this is by no means a bad idea, escpecially given how good Google is at this sort of thing).

Google+ tackles this problem head on with their Circles feature, but the present limited population of g+ is hiding how useful Circles can be. The most useful part about circles is that they *filter twice* - I pick who I follow, and they pick what they share *topically*. In g+, the intersection of these interests will be what I actually see.

It is a huge step forward in crowdsourcing curation. It can hugely reduce the noise that a reader gets compared to twitter and facebook. It may rely on the author to select their (initial) audience,which may seem inconvenient, but in practice this is exactly the feature we've been clamoring for in other social media tools. Circles finally gives us that power.

So why don't we see this emergent property of Circles yet?

Presently, Google+ is populated only by "Internet Celebrities" (to quote Leo Laporte), and their nerdly hangers-on (myself included), and I think this population is masking this very important feature, making the graph (at present) look more like this:

The Internet Celebrities are followed by almost everybody, and they're making everything public, as is their way. (Your mom isn't on g+ yet, and most g+ conversations going on right now are--surprise!--about g+).

If Circles allow an author to feel as though they're sharing with a targeted community (and more than just the Internet Celebrity/Early Adopter community is present), then they'll be useful enough at the source to help more open sharing, and more targeted conversation. This can solve the "Community" problem of social networks, but what about the transition past the 150-connection gap to an "Audience"?

Sharing, Resharing, and crossing the 150-Connection gap

Jeff Jarvis highlights a currently talked-about issue with re-sharing, where he essentially says, that disabling re-sharing stifles discovery by a third-party audience. (From my standpoint, this is a kiss-of-death to an emerging social media technology). Sometimes, we may *want* that discovery stifled, and should be allowed to announce it to our circle by disabling re-sharing (which is, by no means, a guarantee that a malicious member of the audience won't find a way around it--Jeff's excellent point). The question is really a matter of *defaults* (Defaults matter!), and I'm glad to see that g+'s default is to allow re-sharing.


Because re-sharing is one mechanism by which we crowdsource curation which is important in the long-term for social technologies, and the Internet in general. But it also allows a relevant post to jump from Community to Audience, which is, as cited before, the key feature for a social technology to "take off". That's not to say we ought not to offer as much control to the author as possible over their intended audience, but we should leave that control to the social pressures that work so well in this space, as opposed to relying on technology to lock away information in a space that was actually built for sharing it. We need the system simply to promote transparency of the author's intentions to their chosen circle (i.e. to let your circle know that the message was intended for them and only them), and let social pressures handle the rest. (If you violate my trust, you'll find yourself quickly removed from that Circle).

Having the ability to disable re-sharing is an important signal to the audience that this is for them only (see Gina Trapani's excellent thoughts on why having the ability to disable re-sharing is important here), but hiding away anything not explicitly marked "public" would hamstring any social media technology before it has a chance to even leave the ground.


Google+ looks like it has the genetic makeup to be a very impressive social technology. If we find utility in "making lists", and sharing defaults are kept open, it has the tools to help people interact with thier close communities, as well as allowing relevant content to jump to a wider audience. There are many other hurdles to clear to see if Google+ will gain the critical mass of users needed to sustain any new social media technology, but it's off to a very promising start.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Bridging the Gap: Authority, 150 connections, and the Power Law

---150 Connections: The difference between a Community and an Audience---

I found myself in a conversation with friend and sometimes mentor, Nathan Hughes (@ndh313), about the upper bound of one's social connections. Back in the 90's Robin Dunbar proposed an upper limit of around 150 real social connections (knowing who a person is and what their relationship is to you). Scientists have recently used Twitter as a laboratory to confirm that this number holds true, even with all the recent advances in social networking technology. This number has also been confirmed by actual practice throughout the range of human experiences, from hunter-gatherer societies to corporate organizations, to the U.S. military.

In our new social media landscape, this limit seems to manifest itself in two interesting effects:

Most of you have probably already observed the first effect, and it is unlikely to surprise you: those of us who follow hundreds or thousands on Twitter or Facebook will ignore most of the traffic in favor of our "core community" of around, surprise, 150 people--the people we have built real social ties with. This is well-understood enough that Facebook tries to predict this core community based on conversations, and filter the newsfeed appropriately.

Second, the rest of our connections (the ones we don't maintain more structured formal ties with) fall out of the conversation paradigm, and become an audience. To a small number of people, we're a member of their community; to everyone else, we are (however transitory) set up as some sort of Authority. Broadcast mechanics take over, and the conversation becomes one-way, because of the limits of human attention, and not the limits of the social media tools we use. When a social network extends our reach as an individual beyond our core communities, it does so in such a way as to set us up as an author(ity), not a conversant. There doesn't seem to be a way around this issue. It's how humans are hard-wired. This almost seems counterintuitive to those of us who've grown up digital, because we see traditional authority structures being challenged everywhere from academics, to the music industry, to the media ("the" media, hah!).


The Internet generation isn't getting rid of "experts", we're just changing the criteria.

Who is to be considered an "expert" on a topic is quickly becoming an ad-hoc, crowdsourced meritocracy. The technology of the 20th century set up firm barriers between community and authority (you were either on TV, or not; a published author, or not). Social media tools have greatly softened that barrier, to the point where many of us can drift in or out of authority, or remain a member of one community, and an authority to another. However, in a web-linked world, contrary to our instincts, Authority is still inherent in the system. That authority is granted by our core communities, however, and not (solely) by some sanctioned social institution. This is the difference between "PhD. X on television said...", and "My friend and sometimes mentor said...". As we each act in our own communities as gates between the communities of others, we lend credence and authority to those voices, sometimes diminishing the authority of traditional incumbent institutions in the process. (More on the social graph as gatekeeper here).

---The Power Law---

The interesting effect of this is as statistically demonstrable as the 150-connections rule. It establishes a power-law relationship inside of networks. Clay Shirky noticed this effect as far back as 2003.  For an evenly-distributed bunch of egalitarians, look how often we all quote Clay Shirky! To most of us, he is an "Authority", not a member of our community (more's the pity). Meritous or compelling memes gather an audience because members of various communities lend the meme (or author) credence. As reputation grows across communities, some people get propelled out of the long-tail and into the big-head of the power-law curve and a wider audience. It's at this point that their social networking relationships change: The conversant becomes an author, and they have to address an audience instead of a just a community.

I've noticed this most frequently when listening to Leo Laporte's This Week in Google podcast with Gina Trapani and Jeff Jarvis. Conversations frequently center around various tools and services that are coming online in the social sphere, and I find how often my own likes/dislikes are at odds with the hosts. This is, of course, because I am using these tools to interact with a community, not to manage an audience. Therefore, our criteria for evaluating the usefulness of these tools is fundamentally different. Things that they find terribly useful tend towards those features that make managing an audience easier: Google's Priority Inbox, Twitter, Gina Trapani's own ThinkUp app, etc. We're using all the same tools, but they're using them from the big head of the power law distribution graph, and I from the long tail. I believe this is the reason why a service like Twitter caught on amongst the media traditionalists more than other social technologies: it's natively a broadcast media, and pretty bad at conversations. Which is exactly what media traditionalists are used to.

---Crossing the Gap---

Thanks to social technologies, it's easier than ever to cross the gap from community/member to audience/author. But the most successful social technologies (let's say Facebook and Twitter) succeeded because they were flexible enough to change when their users were faced with the 150-connection barrier. Facebook iterated through many changes, but the most important to managing the crossing were the "Top News" feed, which filters the user's news feed heuristically based on the most common connections, and the creation of "Fan Pages" that center around managing an audience more than participating in a community. Twitter stumbled onto success largely by having a well-documented and widely-used API that allowed the userbase to extend it's functionality to fit their needs on their own. Hashtags and Retweets are both user-created conventions that help bridge the community/audience gap, and were eventually incorporated into Twitter's core functionality. And almost nobody uses Twitter via SMS anymore, as it was originally intended. Google Buzz is an excellent example of how being able to cross the 150-connection barrier can make or break a service. Even though Google had a ready userbase via GMail, and far superior technology for cross-platform integration, it was the inability to service the big head of the power law distribution graph, without destroying the usefulness to the long tail, that held it back. Following even a few popular feeds in Buzz can bury your closer connections, short-circuiting Buzz's usefulness to core communities, and leaving it as an "either-or" tool. (It can service the audience, or it can service a core community, but for any given user, it can't service both). It does *not* help a user cross the gap between community and audience, and therefore remains far less popular than the bigger names in social technology.

This problem of crossing the gap from core community to authority/audience isn't just for social technologies, however. Any form of human collective endeavor suffers from it. How many companies that function well as a startup are unable to take the leap to full-fledged corporation? (Eric Schmidt admits that even Google's biggest problem is managing growth). How many grass-roots political movements get co-opted by established incumbents? (Something the notoriously decentralized Tea Partiers rightly fear). In the connected age, whether you are building a social technology, or cultivating like-minded people to a cause or corporate mission, building a system (or culture) that is flexible enough to accept growth beyond a core community, without destroying the core community in the process, is the key to success. This not only explains the successes and failures of various social technologies, but also explains the rise of the web itself in the face of the far-less flexible traditional media.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Scarcity, Abundance, and the Knowledge Economy. Tightened Up.

Blogger A^3 spent a little time pondering my writings on Intellectual Property and the Knowledge Economy here. I thought I'd offer my response to his post here as well, as I thought it tightened up some of my earlier writings on the subject.

Also, it's a shame to waste that much decent writing in a comment response. Thanks again A^3. My response follows:

Thanks for speaking well of my blog posts. I'm very glad that more and more people are giving thought to these issues.

I think the key point when talking about that which can be meaningfully measured by economics, is that the Supply/Demand curve is based on *scarcity*, and in a world where *scarcity* is mostly artificially induced (via copyright and patent), the system is fighting a losing battle to cram 21st century ideas of production into 20th century framework of capitalism and property. The problem with the 21st century is dealing with *abundance* not *scarcity*, and traditional capitalism is a tool to allocate *scarce* resources in teh most efficient way. It says next to nothing about allocation of resources that are abundant.

In short, what happens to the Supply and Demand curve when Supply becomes infinite? It's not so much that economics falls down, as that it *divides by zero*, as it were.

For some goods, (notably, anything relying on materials in the real world) this will never happen (until we get the Star Trek replicators online, of course). However, we see what happens when the product is divorced from natural scarcity:

When music was distributed on vynyl records, there was next to no issue with copying or "piracy". When it moved to magneteic casette and CD, there started to be grumbling about "bootleggers" or "pirates", but the problem was still mostly well-contained because copies required a phsycial medium, and a decent investment of labor on the part of the copier to make the next copy. In short, marginal cast was still far from zero. Come to the early 21st cenntury, and the Internet changes everything: 1 copy could become thousands in the matter of a mouseclick: and recorded music was no longer scarce. It was abundant.

Thus my "bits vs. atoms" split helps me think about where traditional economics holds up, and where it doesn't in the coming decades.

When asking about "what we can reasonably say about the economy of two or three decades down the line" we should be asking ourselves if that which is "important to us" is still going to be *scarce*. If it is, then traditional economics will probably be quite unchanged, and still quite valuable when talking about them (atoms).

On the other hand, if our explosion of non-rival goods has rendered supply infinite for certain sectors of "production", we can reasonably expect the bottom to fall out of those sectors, at least economically.

Maybe these goods/sectors/services/endeavors get propped up by some other intrinsic motivation to create, or maybe they just go away in time. Perhaps the musician creates recorded music as a side-effect of getting paid to perform live, instead of the other way around. (For that matter, I know a lot of people who make music, and don't get paid for it today).

I agree that we don't fully understand what the next step in economics is over the next quarter-century, but I think we can safely assume that at least for some sectors of production, it's not just "opaque", as you say, but *wholly different* than what has come before. And I believe we can start identifying those sectors now, by identifying how reliant upon "Intellectual Property" and artifical scarcity they are.

Thank you again for given my writing such thoughtful consideration. Much like the examples above, I don't get paid for, so *my* intrinsic motivation for doing it is when I see others enjoying it.


Sunday, February 20, 2011

Cybersecurity and "Internet Freedom" Act: Who Are They Kidding?

Anytime Congress puts the word "Freedom" in the title of a bill, it means that it's about to curtail the freedoms of whatever other words show up in the title. For instance, the "Cybersecurity and Internet Freedom Act", will limit freedoms in both Cybersecurity and the Internet. Easy, see?

Considering that most Congresspersons can't be trusted to check before e-mailing their bank account numbers to Nigerian princes, I can't see how they think they have enough tech savvy to regulate the Internet properly. And if there's anything Egypt has shown us, it's that we should be making it as hard as possible to let Governments pull the plug on the Internet.

"But Eric! The United States isn't Egypt!! You're crazy to compare the two!!"

Tell that to the 84,000 domains (mistakenly!!) seized and shut down by ICE without so much as a notification to the site operators last month.

Olympia Snowe (Republican-ME) couldn't get this pushed through in 2009 with Rockefeller (Moron-WV), so her companion in the Senate Susan Collins (also Republican-ME) from Maine is trying again in 2011? I have to ask: "What's up, Maine? What lobby do you have up there that's pushing this?"

My take on the 2009 bill can be found here, and not much has changed. Except the title, of course.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Sound of Silence

Sorry about how quiet the blog has been lately. Many of the things I like to write about are starting to bleed together in my head. I busted out some mind-mapping tools (Thanks LucidChart!), and found out why it's been so tough for me to find a toe-hold on writing lately. 

I'll get to work on chopping this up into some sensible posts soon. In the meantime, please feel free to enjoy my madness.



Sunday, February 6, 2011

Everything is a Remix

Everything is a Remix is funny, smart, (and ultimately) a deeply important series of videos about the nature of creativity in a world where access to the means of media production and distribution are ubiquitous.

I'm looking forward to where Kirby Ferguson is taking this. He's done his homework.

You should watch the videos (and consider donating!).

Check out Part 1:

Everything is a Remix from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.

Part 2:

Everything is a Remix Part 2 from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.