Make things

Anil and I have had a few conversations lately about building cool stuff for the internet, the Golden Age of the independent web, and how it’s increasingly hard to filter out industry noise. He posted a quote from Dave Winer and it reminded me of our “About” page for Ludicorp, where we outlined our corporate philosophy (kicking ass), which is akin to avoiding a tour of gas stations. I have a quote behind my desk from Freeman Dyson that I see every day: “There is a great satisfaction in building good tools for other people to use.”

Anil worries that it’s hard to communicate this motivation to a new generation of entrepreneurs, and I agree. There are so many conferences these days, so many voluble, charismatic leaders, and so much noise. I talk to a lot of entrepreneurs in their 20s who are knowledgeable about the valuations various Y Combinator startups have attained, know the names of all the angel investors in the Valley, have in-depth knowledge of the Facebook diaspora and their doings, have opinions on various Zynga acquisitions, and know exactly how to get Andrew Mason on the line…it boggles the mind. These are good things to have in your tool kit. But I want to hear about things out there that they love. About loving the thing they’re building. There’s less of that. Nevertheless, Anil remains “optimistic that we can make this mindset the default.”

Just after reading his post, I settled in to read a book about homeschooling, by John Holt, and in it I found this heartening quote:

Leaders are not what many people think–people with huge crowds following them. Leaders are people who go their own way without caring, or even looking to see whether anyone is following them. “Leadership qualities” are not the qualities that enable people to attract followers, but those that enable them to do without them. The include, at the very least, courage, endurance, patience, humor, flexibility, resourcefulness, determination, a keen sense of reality, and the ability to keep a cool and clear head even when things are going badly. This is the opposite of the “charisma” that we hear so much about.

And this made me think. People ask me who inspires me. This question often stumps me because I have been inspired in my work by stuff that people make. I fell in love with zines and independent radio when I was an isolated teenager living in the suburbs. Then BBSs, people’s personal web sites, Usenet, Entropy8, online zines (holy crap, the old Bitch magazine site is now a porn portal! And Maxi is squatted!), blogs, Excel, online communities, Amazon, Salon, eBay, O’Reilly books, Google, Friendster, Alamut, NQPAOFU, Metafilter, board games, Blogger, paper games, 1000 blank cards, The Mirror Project, 1000 journals, Moveable Type, 20 things, Google Maps, Flickr, Gmail, last.fm, iPhone, NaNoWriMo, McSweeney’s, Kingdom of Loathing, muxtape, vimeo, Etsy, iPad, Kickstarter …the people who make these things are my leaders. Most of the time I don’t know their names. Sometimes I’m lucky and do.

So, to hell with all that noise. It’s just a big mass of envy, chatter and FOMO. Let’s get excited and make things.

Cities grow, companies die

Photo via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/philipbitnar/12985139454/
Photo via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/philipbitnar/12985139454/

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.

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.

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.

FOMO and Social Media

I’ve been watching Twitter and Ditto feeds of people at SxSW, and, from a distance, I get a distinct sense of the social anxiety and FOMO that’s going on there. “FOMO” stands for “Fear of Missing Out” and it’s what happens everywhere on a typical Saturday night, when you’re trying to decide if you should stay in, or muster the energy to go to the party. At SxSW I see people wondering if they’re at the wrong party—the party where they are is lame, feels uncool, has too much brand advertising or doesn’t have anyone there they’d want to hook up with—and so they move on to the next party where they have to wait in line too long, can’t get a beer, or don’t find their friends, and so move on to the next venue where…and so on.

FOMO is a great motivator of human behavior, and I think a crucial key to understanding social software, and why it works the way it does. Many people have studied the game mechanics that keep people collecting things (points, trophies, check-ins, mayorships, kudos). Others have studied how the neurochemistry that keeps us checking Facebook every five minutes is similar to the neurochemistry fueling addiction. Social media has made us even more aware of the things we are missing out on. You’re home alone, but watching your friends status updates tell of a great party happening somewhere. You are aware of more parties than ever before. And, like gym memberships, adding Bergman movies to your Netflix queue and piling up unread copies of the New Yorker, watching these feeds gives you a sense that you’re participating, not missing out, even when you are.

There is a company that sells radar equipment to the police as well as radar detectors to the public. Clorox is one of the world’s worst polluters of water, and also sells Brita filters to get the bad stuff out of the water again. Lawyers create mazes that you have to hire a lawyer to escape. Similarly social software both creates and cures FOMO. If you didn’t know that party was going on, you’d be home contentedly reading your latest New Yorker. But since you do, you hungrily watch each new tweet.

It’s an age-old problem, exacerbated by technology. To be always filled with craving and desire (also called defilement, affliction) is one of the Three Poisons of Buddhism, called kilesa, and it makes you a slave. There is true meaning in social media—real connections, real friendships, devotion, humor, sacrifice, joy, depth, love. And this is what we are looking for when we log on. Most of the world is profane, not sacred, in the Mircea Eliade sense. So it is. But within it is the Emmy award speech of Mister Rogers, a Japanese man being rescued at sea, Abraham Lincoln, moms who comfort sick children, the earnest love that dogs have for people…

FOMO can be fought. Stay alert! En garde!

(This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.)