Congratulations Instructables!

I was so happy to see the Instructables announcement — they are being acquired by Autodesk — and Eric and Christy and the team couldn’t be more deserving entrepreneurs. Anyone who knows Eric and Christy know that they *are* Instructables — ever-curious inventors and unstoppable makers, and that they build a flourishing community around Instructables over the past 5 years, since their inception in 2006. On Twitter, people were joking about how we found ourselves in The Big Make and that we’d all be talking about how, as Anil said, “the scene used to be indie, man” and yes, this is a sign that DIY is growing up.

MakerBot, O’Reilly’s Maker Magazine, Craft Magazine and Maker Faire, Etsy, Kickstarter, Inventables, Tinkercad — these are companies built by passionate members of a thriving community, and I am so happy to see it coming together, and some of its most notable practitioners having a good outcome for their work.

Instructables was also built for a relatively small amount of money — they didn’t raise a lot, and built a real business with premium accounts and advertising, which also shows that seed funding can be the right way to go to get a company off the ground, and subsequent financings may not be needed in some cases.

Congratulations Eric and Christy!

Cities grow, companies die

Photo via Flickr
Photo via Flickr

Why Cities Keep Growing, Corporations Always Die and Life Gets Faster, a summary of Geoffrey B. West’s LongNow talk, by Stewart Brand.

West is interested in scalability, starting out with research on animals, whose scaling is sublinear, up to cities, which is superlinear. Cities want to grow, and while companies want to grow as well, or even survive, they do not. The mean lifespan of a company is only 10 years.

Why the Republican candidates are so strange

Observation by Michael Wolff, Rupert Murdoch’s Biographer, in the Guardian:

Let’s take the present presidential election cycle, in which you have a list of candidates in the Republican party. [You look] at these people and think, “how did they get here? These are the strangest group of national candidates ever assembled, how did this happen?” The answer, most obviously, is because of Fox News. It has two million viewers who want to be entertained by politics, who need exaggerated figures to entertain them. You can only be a viable Republican if you speak to the Fox audience. They demand exaggerated figures, therefore we have conservatives who are unelectable in America.

Anonymity and Pseudonyms in Social Software

On Facebook, and now Google Plus, real names are required. Since its launch, there has been a fair amount of controversy surrounding the Google Plus policies, including this from a former Google employee who goes by the name of Skud, who had her account suspended. Today Jyri posted (on Google Plus) about Pseudonymous Accounts and why they should be permitted. He argues that people should “not be booted off the system for using a made up name” and quotes the diary of a gay teenage girl, Agnes, writing about her love interest, Elin, in Show Me Love:

This is not an edge case. Nor is it just about the two billion people who live under oppressive regimes. If you are a person who “thinks different”, think back. Were you ever the nail that sticks out, at some point in your life? Like in Amal, the home town of the two girls Agnes and Elin, the community preventing you from being all you can be the neighborhood school, church, friend group… often it’s your family.

Later in the afternoon Bradley Horowitz, from Google, posted about some changes to Google Plus addressing some concerns, allowing people to associate fictitious names with their accounts under “Other Names” (which can also be used for maiden names and the like), clarifying the rules during the sign-up process, and the implementation of a warning system prior to account deletions. He noted that he himself goes by the name “Elatable” on various places on the internet. And I think Google is being responsive and trying to do the right thing (That “Data Liberation” link gets me every time!)

The point I think is this: Pseudonyms are not in themselves harmful. Yes, they can be used for harm, as when people use them for anonymous, slanderous attacks, trolling, etc., but in the vast majority of cases there is no harm done. Importantly, they can serve to protect vulnerable groups. There’s even a comprehensive list of people harmed by Real Names policies. In the cases where pseudonyms are being abused, it is the harm that should be stopped, not the pseudonyms.

To my mind there are three categories of Pseudonymous behavior, and they should be treated differently:

AKA or “Also Known As” is a common use case. It’s like a stage name or a nom de plume. Say your Nom de Web is Kryptyk Physh. It’s not your “real name”, but you’ve staked your claim to it, it’s easier to register an original name in crowded namespaces, and your friends have come to identify you by it. These names are usually accompanied by a real name, like Bradley associating himself with “Elatable” or my friend Todd using his customary handle “Telstar Logistics“. The person is not trying to conceal his or her identity, just use a handle. Harm? None. It’s fairly easy to design systems to accommodate this, and this is the use case that Google Plus was addressing with their changes today.

Pseudonym A false name, or a name unassociated with a real identity, to preserve anonymity, for protection. The spectrum of danger ranges from people trying to avoid email-harvesting spammers, through gay teenagers risking the judgment of their peers and family, workers fearing they might lose their jobs, journalists in corrupt regimes or political dissidents who could risk prison or death. Sometimes their friends and allies know who they are if others don’t, in a kind of identity steganography. This is a strong case for allowing pseudonyms to exist online, and such white hat users can generally be identified by the content they post and their behavior online, which distinguishes them from

Trolls, a rubric I’m using to include Trolls, Harassers, Griefers, Spammers, Pimps, Exploiters, Slanderers, Criminals, Impersonators, Haters and so on — these are the abusers of anonymity, using false names as a convenient fig leaf to cover up anti-social behavior and to escape the consequences they’d face if they’d used their own names. Strong moderation is the solution to this problem. (And not to be forgotten: people harass others using their real names too.) On many systems there is a combination of real names and pseudonyms. The system can be designed to elevate in trust people using their real names, as Amazon does, and similarly can be designed to raise or lower the reputation of people using pseudonyms, by their behavior, using their posts, comments and contributions, rather than their identity. A general policy (that I use for my own sites) is to publish cogent, considered posts by anonymous contributors, but throw out posts that are angry, unproductive or concern trolling.

“Real identities” have real benefits to users — creating communities of trust, silencing trolls, people standing by their words. Nothing can destroy a happy social space faster than allowing the trolls to go unchecked. The use of real names online has gained momentum in recent years, I think as a consequence of the rise of social networking; in an earlier era this wasn’t the case. But most peoples’ pseudonymous online behavior falls into the first two categories — only the third needs policing. Pseudonyms, which provide so many benefits to the first two categories, should not be banned because of the third.

How real names benefit Facebook and Google is another story, for another post.

Create Islands of Meaning in the Sea of Information

Claude Shannon, father of information theory, separated information from meaning. His central dogma, “meaning is irrelevant” declared that information could be handled as a mathematical abstraction independent of meaning. The consequence of this freedom is the flood of information in which we are drowning. The immense size of modern databases gives us a feeling of meaninglessness…It is our task as humans to bring meaning back into this wasteland. As finite creatures who think and feel, we can create islands of meaning in the sea of information.

Freeman Dyson, in his review of James Gleick’s book on information, in NYRB

Nat Torkington on Google+

Nat Torkington writes up a good precis of Google Plus and, well, its pluses and minuses, and it’s worth a read. I agree with him especially that Circles are confusing and the ability to share with a Circle should be limited to that Circle; people in that Circle shouldn’t be able to reshare what you’ve shared with them.

He points out that Google has done the right thing in allowing you to take your data with you out of the system, unlike on Facebook. This is important. He groups this under the bad, but it should be under the good. The “free and be-advertised-to” business model is the default model, and he takes them to task for not innovating on the business model. He says “You’ll notice that none of the social networks have subscription options. Nobody says “pay me $100/yr and I’ll keep all your data private and you can have an ad-free experience.” As Kellan pointed out (on Google Plus) there is at least one service where you can pay $25 a year for exactly that, Flickr.

New Startup!

Entrepreneurs gonna entrepreneur. I have a new startup! We are building something consumer-facing, something social — all the things I love best — for optimal founder-market fit!. It’s crazy times in the Valley and while I prefer doing startups when the going’s tough, money is scarce, and talent is thick on the ground — the best time to start a company is always two years ago, and the next best time is now. So now it is.

We are funded by my buddies at True Ventures (especially Jon Callaghan & Tony Conrad, rockingest investors this side of rock), my very own fund Founder Collective (with Dave Frankel, Eric Paley, Chris Dixon, Zach Klein, Bill Trenchard et al.), SV Angel (including David Lee and Ron Conway, Godfather of the Internet), Betaworks and independent angels, friends and family such as Keith Rabois, James Joaquin, Shoshana Berger and The Best Sister in the World.

You can sign up to get launch announcements and be a beta tester by joining our mailing list.

And we are hiring both back end & front end engineers. We’re working primarily in Ruby on Rails, using Backbone.js, and jQuery mobile. We are located in San Francisco, in Hayes Valley. If this sounds appealing, email us your resume and tell us about yourself.

UPDATE: Whoa! I changed “engineers are unemployed” to “talent is thick on the ground” — Someone wrote recently that he knew it was a bubble when it was easier to raise money than hire engineers and that was what I was thinking of when I wrote that. Came across the opposite as how I meant it. Thanks for pointing that out, various folks!

Nicholas Kristof on rescuing children from brothels

Nicholas Kristof is a longtime champion of women’s rights, and protecting children from prostitution, especially in Asia. He’s done amazing work with Sheryl WuDunn in co-authoring Half the Sky, and even rescuing children from brothels himself.
Along with Norma Ramos, I was surprised to see the word “voluntary” in his editorial below…I think he probably meant ‘compelled less by violent pimps than by violent parents, sexism and poverty ‘. I’m quoting Norma’s response below:

Nicholas Kristof’s Op-Ed piece “Raiding A Brothel…” (5/26/11) calls for the prosecution of pimps and brothel owners as an effective tool towards ending sex trafficking. For too long law enforcement resources have been directed at arresting the prostituted instead of those who would commercially sexually exploit them. In other words, we have been arresting the wrong people. We join Mr. Kristof in this call for a shift in law enforcement priorities and add that it is crucial to adopt the Nordic approach by arresting the buyers of commercial sex who create the demand that is fueling sex trafficking.

In contrasting the brutality of prostitution in India with that of prostitution in China, Mr. Kristof states that women in China are typically “… working voluntarily.” We have found otherwise. Typically we find that women and girls are pushed into the sex industry through childhood sexual abuse, gender and racial inequality, poverty and pimps.

Given any other choice, the vast majority of women and girls in prostitution would be choosing opportunities that could lead to real careers — just like men do.

For the prostituted, the right to say no to unwanted sex has long been destroyed. At its core prostitution is violence against women and girls. A Canadian study found that women and girls in prostitution face a 40 times higher mortality rate than the national average. By all accounts, China has yet to achieve social conditions that meet the indicia of gender equality and has a high rate of poverty. In other words what may be masquerading as choice is actually a function of lack of choice.

Creativity, Collaboration and Hacking

My intro to 7 on 7 at The New Museum in New York this past Saturday, which was built on my intro to Flickr Hacks from a few years ago, and was read to the assembled art crowd watching 7 on 7’s unique (and awesome) program. You can read more about it on the Rhizome site.

When I was in college, I wrote a paper about a poem, The Book of Ephraim, that was about a couple that spent years talking to spirits on a Ouija board, communing with the shades of poets, emperors, and friends. I’d never tried a Ouija board before, but I drew one on a piece of paper and used an overturned teacup to try it out with my friends. Amazing things happened as a result: we recorded conversations with dead army generals from Prussia who’d climbed Kilimanjaro, and conjured a mysterious spirit who spoke only in riddles. It was an addictive activity. Hours would go by, story after story would be told, and eventually the candle, set up for atmosphere, would gutter out, or we had to stop and eat, or pee, or write another paper, or go to sleep.

I didn’t believe (and I don’t think my friends believed) that we were actually talking to spirits, but something much more interesting has happening: my subconscious and the subconscious of my friend were working together to tell a story, a story we couldn’t have made up on our own, but which we were both contributing to.

If you’ve ever been in a band, or played a sport, or danced, or done anything with other people — even started a company! — you’ll know what I’m talking about. You make up a riff, and then the bass player picks up the riff, and then the drummer makes a variation on the theme, reversing it, and you jam on it and make sweet, sweet music together. Hours go by, you are lost in the flow, or the zone, or the jam, or whatever you want to call it. You know when this is happening with your hockey team, when you’re reaching a sublime level of banter at the dinner table, even when your flirting is really hitting the mark. Your subconscious is working together with someone else’s, time vanishes, peace prevails on earth, and everyone is dissolved together into the great, unimpeachable and omnipotent Is.

Hacking and art-making are like this, especially when done together — an artist-hacker matched with a hacker-artist for the day — to jam, invent, make things, do stuff, and have ideas. Both technology and art are about making things new and seeing things new, and the way to arrive at the new is a collaborative, mysterious and Ouija-like process.

This is what Seven on Seven is, and what Rhizome has created for us, here, today. It’s a risky undertaking because you pretty much have to go with your first idea. And your partner — maybe you know her, maybe you don’t. What if you are unable to get in the groove? What if you’re classical and she’s jazz? He’s Rails and She’s Python?

What’s fun about this project, this format and this day is we don’t know how it’ going to turn out. It’s a lark, a plunge. We’re in the middle of the creative process, not the end. It’s a leap-of-faith, seed-stage, put good people together and see what happens day. The seven technologists and the seven artists here today are the top of their respective fields, and they’ve hacked and improved their way through the past day.

The assembled awesomeness is inspiring and Lauren has set the scene, a locus for scenius. What do we have? A blank sheet of paper, a Ouija board, an overturned teacup, two people and their imaginations. Or an iPad, a keyboard, Ruby on Rails, some wires, two people and their imaginations.

And our own curiosity, amazement and surprise.