Dispatches From Blogistan

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the book
Dispatches From Blogistan
by suzanne stefanac
peachpit/new riders
voices that matter series
shipping now
> amazon
> barnes & noble
from the book
> table of contents
> chapter 2 history of open discourse
> chapter 6 history of journalism
> 10 blog design tips
> what is this long tail?
> trackback demystified
> blog ethics primer
> glossary
> resource hotlinks


> cory doctorow

> farai chideya

> bruce sterling

> denise caruso

> craig newmark

> jamais cascio

> laura lemay

> christian crumlish

> jon lebkowsky

interview with cory doctorow

Ccap.gifory Doctorow is a powerhouse. Besides being an award-winning science fiction author, he is one of the masterminds behind the immensely popular blog, Boing Boing. But wait! That’s not all. From 2002 until early 2006, Cory was the Director of European Affairs for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, working closely with the United Nations, standards bodies, governments and more to address issues of international copyright and rights to privacy and free speech. (Cory was still with the EFF when this interview took place.) He still serves on the boards of many groups working to advance both new technologies and the cultures growing up around them. You can try and keep up with Cory by reading his personal blog, Craphound.

Dispatches: I remember when Boing Boing was a paper publication…

Well, that was a long time ago. I read Boing Boing as a teenager. The bookstore I worked in stocked Boing Boing. Mark (Frauenfelder) tells this story a lot better than I do, but Mark and Carla (Sinclair) and Gareth (Branwyn) were publishing Boing Boing and it was a very popular print magazine. But then the distributor went under.

The way the distribution for print magazines works, you’re not a secure creditor if you’re the person who gives them the magazines. You’re a secure creditor if you’re the bank. So, the first thing that happens when a distributor goes under is that the bank takes all the money that is owed to the magazine and then confiscates all the magazines, sells them, and doesn’t give anything to the magazine publishers.

So you end up with the magazine publishers being penniless. That’s more or less what happened to Boing Boing. It happened to a lot of people at the same time. It was like a comet hit the small press scene in the late ’80s, which was just after the desktop publishing revolution hit. It was sort of like the large print giveth and the small print taketh away. Anyone can publish a magazine! And so everyone published a magazine.

Mark and Carla were in the same building where they were plotting Wired magazine over near South Park (in San Francisco). They started working together and eventually ended up working at Wired. Mark was managing editor of the online section and then he branched out. Soon he was on the mastheads of the Industry Standard and Red Herring and related magazines. When Blogger came out, one of his jobs as a tech journalist was to try this stuff out and see how it worked.

His experiment to test Blogger was to see what would happen if Boing Boing were a blog. At first, he wrote the blog for a relatively small audience. It was a nice hobby for him. His breakout moment was when it was leaked that Dean Kamen had produced the Ginger, which was this unknown project. The buzz was that Steve Jobs and a bunch of other really smart people said it would change the world.

And so there was this sort of news story du jour. What was the new Ginger going to be? Was it zero-point energy? Was it a jet pack? Was it like nuclear-powered amphibious automobile?

Mark was an engineer, as well as a journalist, and so he knew a little about how to find this sort of stuff out, and so he went to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and found the patent application that had been filed on Ginger. He wrote on Boing Boing that Ginger was probably a scooter, sort of a science fair project. (Ginger turned out to be the Segway scooter.) The story got picked up by a lot of places, and CNN showed the blog on the air that night. I think he’d been getting a few dozen hits a day up until then and, suddenly, he got 7000. It was like, holy shit!

He was leaving on holiday for two weeks the next day and we knew each other. He’d profiled me for the Industry Standard about a company I had started. He emailed me and said, “Hey, I’m about to go on holiday. Some of these people who came to see us today after the CNN story might come back and there won’t be anything new on the blog. Would you be interested in guest editing for a couple of weeks?”

When he came back, he said, “Wow, you posted great stuff, why don’t you hang around.” I started the Guest Bar and invited a bunch of different guests, one of whom was Xeni (Jardin), whom we invited to stick around.

And that was funny. We had actually invited Wiley Wiggins to be our guest blogger. Basically, at the end, he invited Xeni to take his place. We didn’t actually have a “You may pass the baton to the next guest blogger” mechanism in place. We generally figured out who the next guest blogger would be, but he made the invitation. We didn’t really know her, but it seemed like a nice enough idea, and so she stuck around.

Pesco (David Pescovitz) was an old friend of Mark’s from Wired and Boing Boing the print magazine and he got on board and that’s how we ended up where we are now.

I don’t really know that much about the print days, other than that the economics of it stank. They say publishing is a great way to make a little money—if you start with a lot of money.

Dispatches: But Boing Boing is doing all right financially now, right?

Well, yeah, we are. Our overhead is pretty close to zero. Because we’ve become very popular, we pay a fair sum for bandwidth. But the sum per user is very low because the economies of scale are good.

We have a sysadmin who works for us at a pretty good rate. We like to see to it that he’s compensated. And I think we’re probably going to take out a liability insurance. When you’re a really small company you don’t need liability insurance because nobody is going to sue you. You don’t have anything to be sued for. If you’re a really big company, you can totally afford liability insurance and you don’t have to worry about it. We’re in the middle. I think we’re about to spend a lot of money on liability insurance, relative to our income.

Dispatches: What do you see as the biggest potential liability?

Probably copyright. Libel, secondarily. Trademark, maybe. But I think copyright because most of what we do is fair use and fair use is not an affirmative right, as lawyers like to say.

Fair use is a defense against a charge of infringement. If someone says you’re infringing, you can say, “Why, yes, I was, but here’s why it’s not illegal. I was making a use that is protected under the Fair Use sections of 17 USC.”

The factors spelled out under 17 USC are intended to be interpreted by judges using their own common sense. And so sometimes judges throw out the four factors and make judgments that are unrelated to them. Like the VCR. There was a big question. Is a VCR a fair use or not a fair use. Is home taping fair or unfair? On the four factors analysis: (1) What’s the character of the work that you’re taking? What are most off-limits are the things that are the most intensely creative—like movies. So it fails on that one. (2) How much of the work are you taking? Well, when you home tape, you take home 100% of the work. (3) Are you transforming it making a socially beneficial use like parody or educational? No, you’re just taping it. (4) Are you harming the rights-holders’ commercial interests? Well, yes, because they had a deal with Discovision that was the alternative to taping movies off TV. Consumers go and buy the programs. So it failed on all four factors, but the judge just sort of applied common sense. Progress happened. We got the VCR.

But if you’re not Sony and you can’t afford a billion dollars worth of litigation over eight years about the legality of your offering, you better have good insurance. And so we’re going to take out insurance.

Dispatches: Most people don’t know how to gauge fair use.

Which doesn’t really matter since most of these people don’t have anything to be sued for. In general being on the wrong side of fair use is irrelevant because the only time you really find out if your use if fair is if someone sues you.

The thing we all have to look out for is rich weirdos who sue capriciously, but those people are in a minority. A much more pernicious thing happens when people make a potential claim against someone who has enough assets that, if they win, the court will confiscate those assets and give them to a lawyer. And so you get lawyers who will work on contingency. That’s the thing you’ve really got to worry about. If you’re blogging as yourself and you’re not an incorporated entity, and you have enough assets to interest a lawyer, maybe you’ll find yourself on the wrong side of a lawsuit.

Now in terms of what’s fair and what isn’t, like I say, it’s a really hard thing to decide. Because you have, on the one hand, the four factors that lawbooks talk about, and then ultimately you have a judges ability to apply what you might call the “giggle test.” This person says that this is fair. Does that smell right? Does it make me laugh when I hear it? Does this make the judge laugh when someone says, “Your Honor, I made this use that is fair.”

It’s a hard thing to know what side you’re on. The purpose of fair use is to provide an escape valve to an author’s monopoly over the copying, performance, display, and subsequent creations based on his or her works.

That monopoly is intended to serve as an incentive for the creation of more work. So generally speaking, fair use is all the uses that you might make without an author’s permission that either (a) don’t provide a disincentive—if you do this authors will create less, or (b) have some socially beneficial purpose, like parody or criticism.

Types of fair use that everyone should understand are parody, criticism, and reportage. If you said to people who were being parodied or criticized, “You have the right to prohibit people from quoting your works in the context of parody and criticism, no parody or criticism would ever be able to quote from a work. Mad magazine will never get permission from George Lucas to do Star Wars’ spoofs. It just isn’t going to happen. So Mad magazine needs to rely on fair use to get there. So that’s pretty straightforward to understand.

The next question is, is it fair use because it doesn’t undermine the creator’s incentive to create? This is a harder question because this is the area where you get judges coming up with theories that other judges strike down as being completely ridiculous and eventually the Supreme Court rules and sometimes Congress intervenes.

I’ll give you an example in the context of what we do with Boing Boing. Boing Boing is essentially a page full of quotes. We write up a little bit about a page or service that’s interesting and then we quote enough to tell you exactly what you need to know about it before you click on the link. This is what Bruce Sterling calls “attention conservation.” I don’t want people clicking on links to things they don’t enjoy. I want people clicking on links to things they do enjoy. We want to give them the information they need to make a decision before they click. That means we quote images, we quote text. We don’t really quote song or video, but we do take snippets, we take stills all the time.

We try to display them at the minimum size and with the minimum taking necessary to convey that information. We also make a copy of them because the only way you can really do that is to take the content onto your own server and trim away all the stuff that you’re not quoting.

We have two potential infringements. One is a display infringement—making a derivative work and displaying it. The derivative work in this case being our commentary on it. And the other infringement is the copying itself. We host a duplicate or a derived duplicate from someone else’s media asset.

I believe that these are fair on two levels. First, I believe that these are fair for the most part because this is, if not criticism, then at least commentary. Commentary is generally considered socially beneficial and so allowed.

So even when, say Xeni quotes from the FEMA site materials that bring disrepute to FEMA, now even though we’re doing that and we’re undermining FEMA’s incentive to create, essentially, that commentary is a fair use.

I also believe that because the bulk of what we comment on on Boing Boing is celebratory rather than condemnatory, the universe of things that suck is so large that you could catalog it for a thousand years and never come close to it, whereas the universe of things that’s great is a lot more tractable and, because of that, we basically lionize most of the stuff that we quote from. Even if the creator disagrees, it’s hard to see what negative impact it would have on a creator’s incentive.

But this is not an area of settled law, which is why we’re taking out insurance. No one knows for sure whether this analysis is good. I’m not a lawyer, but one thing I do know is that if you’re going to be a test case, the most intelligent thing you need to do is skirt the edge of the law and push the envelope of the law in a way that will be interesting to impact litigators and legal clinics.

I’m not speaking ex cathedra on behalf of the EFF, none of this constitutes an offer on their behalf, but BitTorrent, for example is probably a good example of a service that skirts the law in a way that’s interesting to law professors and impact litigators who try to change the law by defending good clients with good facts.

Some machinima sites make music videos out of video game animations. This is a double whammy, right? You’re infringing on the video game animation and infringing on the music. Chances are the video game makers probably wouldn’t sue you but you might get into a thing where Sony Online Entertainment doesn’t want to sue you but Sony Music does. That’s a certain kind of infringement. No money changes hands. Fans are the ones doing it. The music industry supposedly hasn’t gone after them. Someone sent one site a takedown notice, on behalf of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), but the RIAA said it wasn’t them. Jenni Engrebretsen is their head of communications and she sent me an email saying we want you to know that this wasn’t us. Here’s my cell phone number and I called her up and said, “This is great that it’s not you. Has this happened before? Would you bring a suit against a machinima site?” She said, “I’ll get those answers for you soon.” I called and emailed her about twice a week and her answer after about two months was, “No comment.”

It would pretty interesting to have other journalists put these questions to her.

So the challenge is to skirt the law in a way that impact litigators will find interesting. And one thing I’ve only recently gained an appreciation of is that impact litigation only works when there isn’t a jury involved. Because you don’t get an opinion out of a jury. You get opinions out of judges. And opinions are binding. Jury verdicts aren’t.

So which kinds of things goes to a jury and which go to a judge? Well, anywhere where there’s a question of fact that, generally speaking, would require experts to testify, will go before a jury. So in trademark, the argument often hinges on: Was this likely to mislead an average consumer? Was your TabascoSucks.com website designed in such a way that might confuse an average consumer about the origin of the website and its relationship to the McIlhenny Company of Louisiana. That’s the kind of question you generally ask juries to rule on. Which means that it’s rare that you get impact litigation around a trademark case.

Copyright is often judicial in a way that trademark isn’t. I don’t have any good formula for how to infringe in a way that’s going to interest an impact litigator, but questions like, “Is quoting from an essay in a documentary film ok? Having someone read aloud from an essay in a documentary film? Or clearing all the material in a documentary film? Or, rather, using content in a documentary film without clearing it? This isn’t really an area of settled law.

Also things like song quotes or quotes from poems or if you syndicate your book on your blog. This is not really an area of settled law. MIT Press a couple of years ago decided that it wasn’t going to pay for rights to a series of one-line quotes that were being used as chapter headers in a novel they were publishing and the publishers didn’t sue them. They didn’t sue them because I think they realized that this was an area where MIT would be the kind of defendant that would attract an impact litigator, potentially someone from down the road at the Harvard Berkman Center and that the outcome of the litigation was uncertain enough that there was potential that they’d get binding precedent that said no one would ever have to do this again. So, better to let these guys sneak through without dinging them for it than to have a judge tell you that you can never ask anyone for money for this again.

Dispatches: how do you see the Creative Commons licenses fitting into future legal cases?

Creative Commons licenses are great if what you want to quote is from the Creative Commons. It’s very cool. And I put my stuff into the Creative Commons because I want people to quote it. But I don’t think that people should limit themselves to quoting things that are in the Creative Commons. I think that there are good, socially beneficial, fundamentally democratic reasons to quote material without an author’s permission outside of the realm of a Creative Commons license.

That said, Creative Commons licenses are wonderful. They let you do things with impunity, like for example, inline an RSS feed. Now I would argue and have argued, that there’s an implied license in an RSS feed to aggregate and republish it. It’s like the implied license to have your page spidered and indexed by a search engine when you put it on the Internet. If you didn’t want it spidered, you should have put it in a robots exclusion [code that tells a search engine spider to not index the content on that page or website] or put it behind a password or whatever.

I feel the same way about RSS. But there are knock-on uses that Creative Commons licenses allow—bulk aggregation and reuse. Flickr’s use of Creative Commons is brilliant because there are a lot of uses that aren’t under the banner of fair use that the Creative Commons license allows that having a giant database of photographs makes good on.

So, for example, stock art. Generally speaking if you are designing stuff for a client pitch, you don’t really have to worry about copyright. I used to work at an ad agency. We didn’t worry about copyright. We’d compile reference material. We’d have a designer scan it in for us. We’d go to the client with a PowerPoint presentation with a thousand scanned images, textures, ads, and film clips that we would show to our clients. Every agency does this. Every designer does it.

The thing is that most of these materials are never published, so it’s not so much that they are legal or illegal, it’s kind of never under the purview of copyright because no one ever finds out about it.

Now in the design school world, most students put their material on their websites. It’s how they submit their materials to their classes, it’s how they get jobs. All of a sudden, this material is in the realm of copyright law. If your student film uses a clip of music, there’s a reasonable chance that someone from the music industry is going to find it and send a cease and desist letter or a takedown notice to your university. That’s a big problem. Creative Commons licenses solve that problem.

If your band wants to produce a commercial CD, “commercial” in quotes meaning that you’re charging someone money even if you only sell 500 of them after gigs, and you use someone’s copyrighted photograph on the front, you stand a good chance of getting in trouble for it, because your CD cover art will be on your band site. Photographers are crazy on this subject.

So what Flickr has done is mass-amateurize interesting stock photos. Some of them are crap. Some of them aren’t. They’re really easy to mine. They’re easy to pull material out of. It’s great.

One of the things that we don’t do on BoingBoing is we don’t run images alongside stories that don’t come from the originating site. So we might have a story about a mode of automotive propulsion, say a Burningman car that works a little like a Flintstone’s car, you put your feet through the floor and run. Now it would be tempting to find a still from an old Flintstone’s cartoon, but that’s probably not a fair use.

What Flickr does is give you a stock of images that you can use that might illustrate that point as well, or nearly as well, as a Flintstone’s still does, and you can drop that in. That’s pretty good.

Dispatches: You have a personal website, Craphound.com where you often post your original fiction. This seems to be a model for many writers these days. What advice would you give to those who are themselves creators and thinking of posting their content?

I think this makes sense for most creators, in fact so many creators that the ones that this doesn’t apply to, there’s a kind of rounding error. It’s basically statistically invisible. The biggest threat for most creators isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity. Putting something on a website won’t make it popular, but keeping it off a website makes it pretty much impossible to make it popular. The hard problem of marketing is made harder when there’s more material available. It’s not made easier by taking your material out of the pool. It’s easier for me if everyone takes their material out of the pool. It’s not easier for the people who take their stuff out of the pool. So it’s got to be somewhere where people can read it.

I see this now with science fiction, short fiction in spades. Science fiction is pretty much the last genre where people read short stories in any real numbers, with mystery to a lesser extent. There are several major awards given out for short science fiction. The problem is that the way science fiction works, you sell a story to a magazine, it comes out for four weeks, and then it’s gone forever. So it’s hard to get popular through organic word of mouth, like “You should read this story, it’s brilliant.” It just doesn’t happen, because you might hear that, but you can’t find the story.

The received wisdom was that you shouldn’t put your stuff online because people aren’t as interested in buying reprint rights to material that’s been online. You might get a couple hundred bucks from a magazine and a couple hundred bucks from an anthology at the end of the year.

Well, it turns out that this was completely wrong. Having your story on the Web means that if it appears in a magazine and then you put it on the Web, or if it just appears on the Web, people who like it can tell their friends about it and then they can go and read it.

So if you look at the awards ballots for short fiction and science fiction for the past couple of years, it is totally dominated by fiction that was first published online. And, fiction that has a lot of word of mouth and fiction that wins awards gets bought for reprints, even if it’s online. So now, i think that any short fiction writer who doesn’t at least put their content online after the magazines are off the shelves is nuts.

Dispatches: One of the distinguishing characteristics of blogging is the open source nature of much of the software behind the pages. Can you comment a bit about this phenomenon?

A proprietary technology is like a gun on the mantelpiece. If you lock your documents, your operating system, or your mission-critical stuff in a proprietary strongbox that you don’t hold the keys to, by act three you’ll get royally fucked by that decision.

If you publish your material behind pay walls, if you use proprietary technologies for reading and subscribing to your material, you’re locked in. When you’re locked into something, the risk that someone will exploit that lock-in is very high. It’s too high for me.

I’ve managed to come through the last years of the twentieth century and the first few years of the twentieth century with almost all of my data intact. I have LOGO programs I wrote in 1980 on an AppleII+. We never, ever have to lose any of our personal data ever again. This can be a crisis for some people. Some people don’t want their teenage confession hanging around on the Internet when they’re 30.

danah boyd researches young people. Their Live Journals are full of ill-advised experiments with oral sex and so forth. That’s funny and weird when you’re fourteen. It’s really embarrassing when you’re going through your Supreme Court nomination hearings when you’re 45.

The important thing is that you can hang onto all of your data as long as that data is in a file format that belongs to you, and if your tool will export it to that format.

Blogging has really been about the ability of the blogger to take their data and jump from one platform to the next. What that’s done is it’s made the blogging tool makers be on their toes. Userland dominated the field and then Blogger kicked the shit out of them. And then Movable Type kicked the shit out of Blogger. And then Blogger surged and people moved from Movable Type back to Blogger and so on and so forth.

This is really cool. What this has meant is that blogging tools have probably innovated faster than any tool suite in publishing history. This is all because there is never a second’s lock-in. It’s funny that it’s never emerged in desktop publishing. Where’s the non-proprietary open suite of user-friendly tools?

There’s a big differences between open source software in general and software used in connection with blogging. A perfectly valid criticism leveled at open source software in general is that it’s hard to use. It’s largely written by and for geeks. There are great exceptions to that. Like Firefox. But it’s, in the main, true. Anyone who’s ever tried to configure Apache knows this. Now you can build front ends to these things that are a lot simpler to use, but geeks don’t often see the need for it. Apple has built a front end to Apache that you click, Start and Apache starts running. That’s pretty badass, but in general this hasn’t been the norm.

Now blogging tools, the suite of open blogging tools, are intended for use by people who are not particularly technologically savvy. I think that’s amazing. So you don’t really have an excuse to not use a tool suite that’s open and free—free as in speech—that will let you always pull your content back out.

It’s amazing what you can do when you can pull your content back out. We stole an idea from Tom Coates on our fifth anniversary. Bloggers steal ideas from each other all the time. Tom Coates, on his fifth blogging anniversary, put together a single file with every post he’d ever made in it, which you can do with the Movable Type Export feature. And then he invited people to find interesting stuff. A bunch of people analyzed his writing style and found that he started a lot of sentences with prepositions or whatever. It was all very interesting. Here’s your average sentence length and here’s how it changed over time. There was some very funny stuff in there. And so we did the same thing. And then Andy Baio (waxy.org) put together this unbelievably cool Flash/DHTML graphing app where you can punch in a keyword and it will show you how many posts it’s appeared in by author. How often do I post about Disney? It’s all there and it’s very cool.

Dispatches: One of the challenges for bloggers is finding relevant content and being found by others. One of the solutions making headway is freeform tagging, or folksonomy. Would you mind talking a bit about this?

I wrote an essay about this called Metacrap that’s somewhat infamous. I actually think it will in large part replace the Dewey Decimal System at some point. Clay Shirky gave a talk about this last year that was very good at Emerging Tech.

The thing about metadata and normalized data is that it’s not politically neutral. The categories we come up with are prescriptive, not descriptive. They define what you can and can’t talk about and how you can think about things. And the problem in making connections between things, in saying, “When I say potato and you mean potawto”, is that if you take that to heart and really do that, then everything ends up pointing to everything else and you end up without a hierarchy anyway.

I think we have this wishful thinking that if we only give people better and better suites of tools for embracing a common suite of tags or a commom hierarchy, some universal agreed-upon ontology, that they’ll suddenly start doing it.

The truth is, we already have far less complex conventions that people don’t embrace. Like if people can’t be convinced to use commas, how are they going to be convinced to use ontologies?

People don’t even spellcheck! My old example of this was that you could always find a deal on a PlamPilot on eBay. The closing price of an auction on eBay is large related to how well described the item is because search is a major mechanism for discovering items to bid on on eBay. People who misspell their item listings don’t get bids and they lose money. Even when there’s money on the table, people don’t spellcheck.

And so folksonomy is an answer to this problem. And folksonomy is, basically, you encourage people to add tags for their own benefit, not for the benefit of anyone else. So when you find a mechanism for driving a positive externality, when it turns out that two people use the same tag for something that’s similar or that might be similar, and you can combine the two collections, that’s a mitzvah, that’s a lagniappe. But it’s not core. The core thing that you invite people to do is to deliver their own value.

In the old days, we had the Altavista approach and the Google approach for organizing the Internet. The Altavista approach was we will catalog all the webpages and then create an artificial intelligence to figure out which ones are most relevant to which queries. This was a total failure. Computers are very bad at understanding things.

The Google approach is, we will use the fact that people make explicit links between documents to determine their relative importance and connection, and then we’ll just count the links. Computers are great at counting things. People are terrible at counting things but great at understanding things. It created a kind of human-machine collaboration that exploited the strengths of both to cover up the weaknesses of both.

So I think folksonomy is a sterling example of asking human beings to do what human beings do well and asking machines do what machines do well and never asking machines to do what humans do well.

You know, like Flickr is head and shoulders away ahead of this stuff. Their interest in this metric is so good, I think it’s even better than Google’s PageRank metric. I get so few false positives, or what science fiction writers call “squid in mouth,” (a totally inexplicable and not very salutary connection) out of the Flickr interestingness algorithm. I just love it.

Dispatches: Tagging and the whole Web 2.0 phenomenon depends on individuals contributing content to a participatory whole. How do you see this evolving?

Again, this is like the question of watching the students crossing the quad and putting the paths down where they’ve walked or just putting the paths down and hoping the students will stick to them. The latter only works when you’ve got a monopoly. It works when the switching costs are high. You can dictate terms to people when they’re stuck in your walled garden. Once they’re out of your walled garden, you can’t dictate terms to them. And once someone offers an unwalled garden, they’ll leave the walled garden and they’lll even dump their assets, they’ll just leave them behind.

So the smartest and simplest way to explain this that I know of is O’Reilly has this Safari program where you can subscribe to their library as e-books. So a tech book’s value is directly correlated to the completeness of its index. And writing a good index is hard because you have to kind of predict in advance all the things that a user of a tech book is going to want to look up. It’s really tough. You kind of need a time machine to do it. O’Reilly and some of the others are lucky because the economics of publishing have changed. You can do small print runs and rerun them frequently, do new editions. So what O’Reilly does is they take the search terms that people search for on Safari’s digital editions of books and add index terms for those in their print editions.

This is really, really smart.

Dispatches: It accrues value over time, a bit like wikis…

I do this with a little bit with my novels. They’re published with Creative Commons licenses. Every writer makes mistakes. Every proofreader misses fixes. It’s to a writer’s advantage to have those errors corrected. And so what I do is have a wiki where people can keep track of errata and they can collaborate and argue about what constitutes errata because there are some things that are clearly errata. Like I said he was there yesterday and I screwed up and he’s somewhere else today. Continuity. And then there’s stuff where it’s opinion and they can hash it out for themselves.

So that’s pretty cool.

I also wanted to talk about games. Games are a really interesting source of lock-in. You can’t export wealth from a game. Even environments like Second Life where they let you own copyrights, it’s hard to understand what a meaningful ownership interest in a object you’ve created in a game is if the people who run the game can simply shut the game down. You can sell your game object within the game for gold which is cool but not when the landlord can shut you out. But what’s interesting and what’s the strong hedge against this, I believe, is that all game wealth is highly inflationary. Every game asset that you own depreciates from the minute it’s created because software developers create new games that are more fun every quarter.

The value of your object in a game is tied directly to how much fun the game is to play when you have that object in your possession. You can’t sell the Magic Ultima sword anymore because no one plays Ultima anymore. This keeps game developers from practicing too much lock-in because they understand that people are going to jump ship anyway. They’re willing to abandon their in-game wealth if this means they can play a game that’s more fun, since their wealth is going to disappear anyway. All the customers will leave.

Dispatches: Some suggest that blogging serves as a facilitator for democracy. Do you have thoughts on the topic?

I do think that blogging is strongly correlated with democratic fundamentals. Obviously, the freedom of the press belongs to those who own one. Now everyone owns a press. All links are one link away.

That’s very cool, but there are ways in which all links are NOT one link away, which is the Shirky Power Law hypothesis. Clay (Shirky) is a really good guy to talk to on this stuff. The people who have more links pointing at them get more links pointing at them because they’re easier to find, and so, when you’re looking for something to link to, chances are you’ll find the thing with more links.

That said, I think it’s absolutely and inarguably true that more people can publish today and more people can publish to more people. Even if your podcast only has 12 listeners, if one of them is in a country that’s 10,000 miles away from you, that 10,000 mile reach for your podcast! That’s something that was reserved for only very rich entities who could afford sales offices overseas.

One of the things about the long tail that’s very exciting, is the idea that we can make, consume, and shape media that’s reflective of our interests instead of being slotted into some interest are by some rights holder or some publisher.

The problem with that model is that it produces a kind of tyranny of the majority. It may be true that 80% of the people are interested in, you know, Hershey bars, but we don’t run democracies on the tyranny of the majority. We run democracies to explicitly protect minority opinions.

After all, popular speech never needs defending.

Dispatches: Unless you’re in China…

Well, yeah. But in general I’m quite enthusiastic about the democratic nature of blogging. I’ve seen it happen again and again. We go to the World Intellectual Property organization and we transcribe impressionistically what delegates say during treaty negotiations and we blog them twice a day. And those transcripts are normally published six months after the event and after being sanitized by the Secretariat and by each speaker who gets to omit anything they don’t agree with.

Now the number of people interested in following the inner workings of a WIPO treaty is small but larger than the number of people who can be in the room. And some of these people are capable of exerting influence from a distance. When someone reads what we’ve written and contacts someone in government who has authority over the person negotiating the treaty, and that person gets a phone call on their lunch break and changes their tune in the afternoon, that’s a really, really powerful democratization.

Dispatches: What about governments like China that attempt to limit a bloggers reach? How effective do you see things like offshore servers and anonymous blogging?

I’m fer it!

I like Adopt-a-Blog, I like Tor. I like Anonablog. I like FreeNet. I like all the anonymizing services. We need more of them and we need more development of them. We need more users of these services who provide feedback about what they need. right now these tools are designed by and for geeks and they have a lot of the failings of tools developed by and for geeks.

Dispatches: One of the issues that comes up again and again with blogs is the concept of trust.

Blogs imply trust. You go back to the blogs that give value to you. This problem has always lurked beneath the surface of librarianship. We’ve always used the fact that a publisher was willing to put something between covers as a proxy for authority. But that’s never been a very good proxy.

This problem has well and truly surfaced now that unvetted content constitutes not 10% of the stuff that’s in our collection and that our patrons consume, but more like 95%. We need a mechanism for training people to identify authority on an idiosyncratic basis, to track and maintain authority, to evaluate authority on an independent basis.

Dispatches: Like reputations on eBay?

Yeah, voting mechanisms are one way, but how do you read an article on a blog that you’ve never read before and determine whether it’s something you can trust or believe in? If you don’t know that a New York Times op ed page editor has vetted it.

There are knowledge guardians who say we should just stop paying attention to that stuff. We should just take it all with a grain of salt. The truth is, we should take everything with a grain of salt. That includes the New York Times.

A skillset for the 21st century that will be most critical is a skillset where you learn to identify the trustworthiness of a document regardless of its imprimatur, regardless of the authority that’s conveyed by its context.

Dispatches: There are those who say that blogging threatens mainstream professional journalism. What are your thoughts?

The most important thing that’s happening to mainstream print journalism isn’t citizen journalism, it’s long tail advertising. It’s craigslist.com. If newspapers die, it won’t be because of citizen journalism, it will because of the way they make their money. They charge $3 per 1000 readers, and Google can do it for $1 for 1000 readers and all their old advertisers go to Google and the publishers go broke.

The reason citizen journalism is important is that when all the newspapers go broke, as they will, how will we have that democratic fundamental that’s performed by investigative journalistic reportage? How will that emerge from a world of independent bloggers?

Dispatches: The inevitable last question, what developments would you like to see in the world of blogging?

More and better feed readers. I’m amazed at how little filtering you can do with most readers right now. Most readers don’t even have keyword filters, or author filters. That’s just such an amazing no brainer.

Dispatches: Particularly since readers are essentially replacing browsers for many individuals.

Right. I’d like to see lots more GreaseMonkey, lots more remix. We may in fact see a whole new species of blog that constitutes, for example, a tab group in Firefox. So you download it, it opens twenty-five tabs, that’s the blog, and each tab has the webpage and each webpage has a grease monkey script that overwrites with the commentary of the blogger. So you would read Boingboing as 25 tabs in your browser, you’d download it, 25 tabs open in your browser and each one has a little floating window over it with why bb thought it was interesting and probably an ad there.

Someone asked me a little while ago, what would Boing Boing do if GreaseMonkey scripts were so widely used that Boing Boing didn’t get any advertising revenue since everyone could filter out the advertising. We would just turn Boing Boing into a collection of GreaseMonkey scripts. That’s a no-brainer.

And you could probably manage it through the same kind of CMS. It would work essentially the same way, it would just be a different publish format. You could draw people to it through the same syndication format.

Dispatches: What did I leave out?

My advice to every blogger is never be cute, never be funny, until you’ve done the core job of being descriptive. Every headline should describe exactly what’s in the post. Use as few words as possible. Start with the most important word and don’t put any articles before it. Never have a headline that says something like, “Omigod, this is too funny.” That kind of headline in a newsreader is noise. Never have a body that says, “This is so funny I can’t describe it, go look.” Anything smartass, twee, coy. You’re not Hunter S. Thompson, and Hunter S. Thomspon probably wouldn’t have worked well as a blog.

There are people who are exceptions to this rule, Fafblog, for instance, but even Fafblog is pretty descriptive. Posts start with good pithy descriptions of what he’s pointing to, and then moves into the humor.

Dispatches: Thanks so much for taking the time.

Zero perspiration.

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