interview with jon lebkowsky
on Lebkowsky is a Texan who wears many hats, a good number of them digital in origin. As a writer, publisher, community developer and online consultant, he’s worked with many organizations, among them the EFF (he’s president of EFF-Austin), SXSW, SalsaNet, Austin Wireless, and most recently, AssistOrg, a nonprofit devoted to providing web development and consulting services to non-profits. He also co-edited Extreme Democracy, a book on technology, democracy, and advocacy. I’m grateful to Jon for taking the time to share a bit of his wisdom. He’s a good guy to watch as this whole Web 2.0 environment evolves. Visit his main website, Weblogsky, to stay tuned.
I wanted to be an author/journalist, but in a fit of idealistic fervor, I took a job working with poverty programs and did that for ten years before I finished college with an English degree… English with a specialization in writing, rather than English literature. (I left Journalism school because I thought it was too forumlaic, and I wanted to be creative! I was kind of an idealistic idiot.
I then went back to the state agency where I’d worked, and because I was had an affinity for computer technology, I became a systems analyst and project manager working with technology every day. Around the same time I discovered the Internet, partly via my membership at the WELL. In ‘92 Paco Nathan and I started one of the first companies based online, FringeWare, Inc. We had been Associate Editors at bOING bOING (the hardcopy version), so we decided to start our own magazine called FringeWare Review. I felt more comfortable in the private sector; within a few years I quit the state job to write a book, but before I finished it, I was offered a job as “Internet Guy” for Whole Foods Market. We built some ecommerce sites, but they ultimately decided to leave ecommerce behind and focus on their core business. By then I was into web development, online community, online activism, emerging technology, and still very much into writing, so that led me where I am now, a consultant and blogger.
Of course, there’s always more to the story, but that’s it in a nutshell.
God knows we don’t teach critical thinking early enough, or stress it as we should in some fields. Same goes for ethics. We foster it anywhere by fostering it everywhere, I think. And I do think that people are thinking more critically about all forms of media, and many are more skeptical. An epidemic of skepticism would be a good thing about now.
I do think blogs prove the rule… I have a much richer picture of the world now that I’m exposed to so many voices, so many perspectives… though there are those who read only those bloggers they agree with, the “echo chamber” effect, and I think that’s less helpful.
I think it just takes time to figure out who’s trustworthy, though quality and relevance are a bit easier to know when you see ‘em. We should understand that we don’t have to have agreement to have trust, and we should find trusted sources and depend on them to lead to others. Of course, there are various reputation systems people have tried, but you can game those systems. I don’t think there’s an easy way to build a good reputation or to discern who’s trustworthy. And maybe it’s better not to trust too much what you find online.
Mainstream media should be worried, and not just because bloggers are taking mindshare. That’s a factor in the fate of MSM, to be sure, but there’s also changing business models… classified advertising is moving online, and microadvertising a la Google Adsense will have an impact. There’s also the significant sunk cost in bricks and mortar while the competition is leapfrogging into more agile means. However we’ll still want journalists, and we’ll still look for authoritative sources. Citizen journalists should attend to their credibility and get a good grasp of journalistic best practices and ethics.
In five years I think most news will be delivered online and via television (though I can see the two delivery frameworks converging), and people will get their news from many sources in many ways. I suspect the sources we consider authoritative today, like the NY Times, will still have a brand and a reputation, though they’ll operate differently, at least logistically.
The association might be naive, depending what you mean when you say “democratizating.” If you mean that people can be in the conversation, and have more incentives to become engaged and participate in the conversations that drive policy, I think that’s accurate. But it doesn’t mean that everybody will have a say in everything… that’s just impracticable. We’ll still have a representative system, but the representatives will be swarmed by smart mobs of well-informed voters. They won’t be able to hide from their constituents. There can be down sides, like the echo chamber effect that you’ll have if people just attend to sources that they agree with – but I think we’ve had that all along. No big change there. I think demagoguery is harder with increased scrutiny, and blogs have proved good at exposing the truth in some cases. But I suppose we could have a Karl Rove of the blogosphere, a politician with a marketing mind who can effectively mainpulate the many voices. It’s harder, though, when there are so many potential information channels. Some of us hope that the global impact will be more free speech, that online communications will prove pretty much impossible to suppress. That’s part of the thinking behind the Berkman Center’s Globla Voices project. I helped write the Global Voices manifesto, which says “Thanks to new tools, speech need no longer be controlled by those who own the means of publishing and distribution, or by governments that would restrict thought and communication. Now, anyone can wield the power of the press. Everyone can tell their stories to the world.”
Copyright clearly needs rethinking and redefinition, but that’s hard to do because the legacy system puts so much money into so many pockets. Copyright was created as an incentive for creators to create, knowing that they would be guaranteed a return on their creations. Now it’s also a protection, not just for the creators, but for companies that own “intellectual property” they didn’t create. That skews the intent.
I do think that creators should have an incentive, and the concept of copyright is a good way to do that. But we can’t afford to lose the public domain. Copyright should have limited duration and clear fair use exceptions. Works should pass into the public domain at some point, sooner rather than later. There’s a clear rationale for this: authors don’t create their works in a vacuum. They’re channeling cultural forces as well as their own creativity, and they owe a debt to the wellspring of culture from which their thinking emerges.
Our world today is so individualistic and property-focused that it’s hard to make this point, but we have to keep making it. I think projects like Creative Commons are a great way to do that, by creating alternatives to closed proprietary thinking.
Heh… well, to a Buddhist everything is always a “transitional phase,” so yeah, that’s what it is. The Internet’s becoming a massive operating system with all kinds of data accessible everywhere. Consider the evolution: we had machines that weren’t connected, then we connected them, then we created something like ftp to share data, and engines like Archie and Veronica to find what data’s out there… then gopher to index it, and html/http so you could publish and link. Now we have the semantic web and the collaborative approach (under the label “social software” and “Web 2.0”) so that, as you say, the information topography is fluid, spontaneously and socially defined. The best strategy is adapt is probably humility, because there’s so many smart people in the game. The dumbest strategy is greed, and what goes with it – we have people trying to build “Web 2.0” sites without any clear idea what that means, for instance, because that’s the wave and they think they’ll make a million or two riding it. However it’s going to be harder and harder to make big money building any kind of business, and it’s back to what I said before – there’s so many smart people. So many will build compelling operations (maybe for-profit, maybe non-profit). Many of those folks won’t be greedy, they’ll be willing to work for bread on the table and a reasonably good life.
What do pickpockets do when nobody has pockets?
Tags have definitely caught on as a way to build fluid and nuanced sets of categories, and I think they’ll be pretty ubiquitous. When I talk to organizations that want web sites these days, they often ask as readily for some kind of tagging system as for blogs. I think they’re most useful as ways to reference sets of data – e.g. I have a bunch of photos from a single event, and I want to reference them with a single link, which could be a tag I set at Flickr. The down side is that you can have many tags that are close in meaning. It may be good to capture the nuance, but eventually the tags themselves may be hard to track. Perhaps we need a system of metatags for groups of tags.
There’s no free lunch, though you might get a free drink and pay for your entree. Many web companies do charge a fee, at least for higher tiers of service – you pay for the 37 Signals products, TypePad, and Flickr, to name just three. Some Open Source projects deliver free software, but they’re supported by donations (CivicSpace, WordPress). Various Google services can be free because Google has incredibly broad exposure through its many systems, and can create many ad impressions.
Operators of social network sites never seemed to have a clear model in mind, other than to assume that, if you manage to attract a large number of years, you can always find a way to monetize your network, either by taking ads or by introducing subscription fees at some point. However I suspect the advertising models are pay per click, which is lucrative only if you can sustain the participation of your users, and general purpose social networks are dull after a while, unlike networks like Flickr that give you something to do.
I suppose I should say something about Myspace here, and I will: I somehow don’t think Myspace is making huge profits, but it’s still rocking on… and, for that matter, I can’t think of any social network system that’s shut down. So they must be working well enough to survive, and that’s something.
“The Long Tail” and “hit-driven economics” aren’t mutually exclusive. I’m sure Amazon loves hits as much as it loves aggregated niche markets – it can serve both very well. Does this mean the Long Tail is overhyped? I don’t think so. It’s an important concept, especially for e-commerce, and it probably carried Amazon through more than one “valley of death.” It won’t make the difference everywhere, though, and there can only be so many Amazons. Maybe just one.
Bruce Sterling and I were just discussing how relevant the feedback mechanism is to the Internet of Things, and for that matter to Software as a Service (where you have the perpetual beta and heuristic development driven by implicit and explicit feedback… the implicit being analysis of user behavior.)
One aspect of O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 “manifesto” is the architecture of participation. Your customers are your collaborators. The passive consumer is dead, replaced by a participant who may talk back, and who may produce as well as consume.
Where you’ll see profound changes is wherever companies have the savvy and perhaps the guts to collaborate with customers, to converse openly and dispense with the top-down approach to marketing and customer relations. You’ll probably see more of this with companies that exist solely online, because this kind of interactivity is an inherent part of operating online.
No way. And we have to worry about symmetry. We don’t want no steenking one-way Internet!
I think if we could stop pretending that bandwidth is inherently scarce, then we might forget about scaling issues.
I think delivery will be similar, but to more devices, with more flexibility, and more ways to filter and select content.
It’s hard to know where to draw the line. Privacy gets into the “individual vs society” realm, where both can have valid but conflicting intentions. We try to act in good faith and trust that other individuals, and society as a whole, will do the same. Yet that trust is easily compromised, and we’re not always aware that we’ve sacrificed some part of our private space until it’s too late. We’re all on record now in so many databases, and we can’t put that genie back in the bottle. There are various technologists working together on an identity framework that could theoretically allow us to control the uses of our data, though it’s very difficult to derive a standard approach that everyone will accept and use.
I think we need broad agreement that individuals should have ownership and control of their data, and that privacy should ultimately be defined as the right to determine how much of yourself (your data) you reveal at what price. To get that control, we probably have to be more assertive, or aggressive, in demanding it. Marketers and politicians won’t readily give up their valuable databases.
There’s also a question of what must be public vs what should be private. For instance, voter files contain accurate names, addresses, and party affiliations for all registered voters, and are public records. Politicians are all over those suckers every election season, and they just keep bulking up their databases with more and more citizen info, ostensibly for vigorous block-walking and getting out the partisan vote. When I work on tech strategy for political campaigns, I worry quite a bit about that data. It just feels too readily available.
Tags can be useful, but they can also obscure, especially as they proliferate. How many categories can dance on the head of a folksonomy? And still be useful, that is.
I think robust search is always far superior to any taxonomy/folksonomy for finding useful information on any web site or other pile of data, but some people are better searchers than others. I happen to be pretty good at search, and I’m often finding data that others couldn’t track down… so it’s one thing to have robust technology, but you also need robust methodology. This is more of a training issue.
It’s always easier to find specific information where you have excellent architecture and good writing, so where blogs are concerned, this is just another way to separate the wheat from the chaff.
death of the artifact?
Not so much where books are concerned… it’s easier to read a printed page than a virtual page, and there’s something about the hardcopy book that you can’t quite simulate. And book sales seem pretty robust.
Music is another story. It’s more convenient to store it online and pop it into a convergent device like an iPod than to fiddle with media. I’d hate to own a record store right now. (I’ve been getting much of my music from emusic.com, where I pay something like 11 bucks for 40 tracks a month, and if I want something more mainstream, I might buy it from iTunes. Five years from now, that’s how everybody will buy music.)
I keep pushing capital punishment for spammers, but people think I’m kidding.
Actually, the people I’d like to punish are the morons who are buying the products that spammers advertise. I mean, I assume that somebody’s buying, since the volume of spam just gets worse.
It’s crazy, though: if a spammer has to use an alternate spelling of cialis or viagra to get past spam filters, then he’s trying to reach somebody who clearly isn’t interested in making a purchase. What’s the point?
I surf blogs rather than read them. I have dozens, maybe even a couple hundred, in my news aggregator. I read some of my friends regularly, as well as a few blogs that are work-related, have very good info and are well-written.
The biggest mistakes bloggers make?
• Taking themselves too seriously.
• Venting impulsively.
• Burying the lede.
• Posting boring drivel.
• Cultivating cynicism.
What did I forget to ask?
Yes, I do sometimes sleep in the nude. *8^)