Thoreau the Technophile

You know Henry David Thoreau, author, transcendentalist, author of Walden Pond, a celebrant of the simple life lived in nature? He seems an unlikely candidate for a technophile, but often the least likely among us are susceptible to the allure of technology. His diary entries in 1851 present quite a poetic view of the newest technology to come to New England: the telegraph:

1851, Sept. 3.  As I went under the new telegraph wire, I heard it vibrating like a harp high overhead. It was as the sound of a far-off glorious life, a supernal life, which came down to us and vibrated in the lattice-work of this life of ours.

1851, Sept. 22. I put my ear to one of the posts and it seemed to me as if every pore of the wood was filled with music, labored with the strain–as if every fibre was affected and being seasoned or timed, rearranged according to a new and more harmonious law. Every cell and change or inflection of the tree pervaded and seemed to proceed from the wood, the divine tree or wood! How much the ancients would have made of it! To have a harp on so great a scale, girdling the very earth, and played on by the winds of every latitude and longitude, and that were, as it were, a manifest blessing from heaven on a work of man’s! Shall we not add a tenth muse to the immortal Nine? And that the invention this divinely honored and distinguished–on which the Muse has condescended to smile–is this magic medium of communication for mankind!

I felt the same way about the internet when I first encountered it–a magic medium of communication for humankind! It’s often difficult for us to “see” this kind of magic anymore because we now know where it has ended up. Power lines, telephone lines–these are not a thing of great beauty, to us. They don’t look like harps to us. This has been beautifully illustrated by Robert Crumb in a drawing titled “A Short History of America”:

Crumb-History1.jpg

Thoreau lived in frame 3, and we live in frame 12. We can see beauty and nature disappearing, and see that, maybe it would have been better to put those lines underground. And that it is up to us to make frames 13, 14, 15. Can we improve it? What will frame 24 look like? 

Not only the built environment, but the inner life has been changed by what Thoreau sees as the  “magic medium of communication for mankind”. This is what I first loved about the internet:  it connected us to each other. We love to connect!

But we’re not communicating any more. We went past Dunbar’s number, beyond the number of people we can meaningfully know, which makes our relationships brittle and thin. Fake news, platitudes, bias, and not seeing our friends anymore– just reading their updates–is what it’s come to. 

This passage from Thoreau tells me three things: One, we should not forget the wonder of being able to communicate with one another across great distances. All the wonders of the internet are still there: we should see it again with it’s magic. Two: we should pay attention to the past to learn for the present. And three, living as we do in Thoreau’s future, where we can see the future outcomes of those telegraph wires, we should think deeply about the future we ourselves are creating and guide it to a better, more beautiful, future.


 

 Walden and Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau. Many people now say that Thoreau’s stay at Walden Pond was more like an early example of performance art then any commitment to living permanently in simplicity.  Still, the virtues of living simply resonate in our overstimulated, trivia-filled lives. And this edition includes Civil Disobedience, his great ode to freedom, which inspired non-violent protest everywhere is a must-read for all of us. Libertarians and liberals alike have marched beneath its banner, and the fact that it can encompass so many diverse viewpoints is a testament to its depth and power.

America by Robert Crumb. Have Thoreau and Crumb ever shared a page? This may be a first.  Both are deeply American. Thoreau is easy for me to like, but I have a love-hate relationship with Robert Crumb. If you haven’t seen the fantastic Terry Zwigoff documentary about him, Crumb, you must, and it will help you understand where he’s coming from. But I have to work hard to get past the pornography, misogyny, racism and scab-picking ugliness of all he does, in order to appreciate the great things he’d done, like that comic above, and his nasty (NSFW) 1989 comic about Donald Trump.


 

 

Online Communities Gone Bad (and getting them back on track)

After my appearance on the podcast Masters of Scale, a lot of people have written to me for advice on managing their communities. Here’s one request and my response, which I posted with permission, in the interest of making the internet a more civilized place.

Things had gotten so bad in this founder’s community, that even employees were thinking of leaving. The team felt hamstrung by their users. He explains:

When we first started our community I was in there posting every day setting the tone. Over the years as the company scaled I chose to spend time on other things beside posting in the forum. Gradually over time things got bad…then really bad…now horrible. 5-10 members of the community have started berating everyone in between posting useful content. Do you have any principles or experiences I can draw upon to think about how to solve this?

Yes, I wrote back, this community has run amok. A garden needs both fertilizer and weedkiller. But most of all it needs a gardener. Go back in and participate as much as before. Community manage with a heavy hand. Promote good people, respond to them.  Make them shine. Build good admin tools to silence bad actors.

You have to take a “iron fist in velvet glove” approach; warn borderline cases, and discuss their behavior with them. Often they can be rehabilitated. But for those who will not change: ruthlessly delete the accounts of abusive people, irrespective of their contributions. Keeping 5-10 bad people have undoubtedly lost you dozens, even hundreds, that you don’t even know about. They’ve stifled other people who are still participating and darkened the atmosphere of the whole community.

Community management is art, not science. There is no black and white when dealing with people. Choose your community team carefully, and find people with good instincts. Have all members of the team participate in the community. And be present there yourself.

Announcing Yes VC

After 8 amazing years investing with my brilliant colleagues, the fun, funny and genius investors at Founder Collective, and after Jyri’s two years working with the great, brilliant, soulful and amazing team at True Ventures, we — Jyri Engeström and Caterina Fake– are busting loose, breaking out, getting down and starting up our very own fund, yes indeed, it’s Yes VC.

yesvc_logo

We’re doing Pre-Seed, as it’s called these days, and Seed investing — investing in great, visionary, early stage companies. We’ll be raising up to $50 million. We’ve got some amazing LPs already and are seeking a few more. We’ll invest in about 20–30 companies over the next several years. We’ll roll in our investments in OrchidSpell and Gaze. And we’ll be continuing to look for world-changing companies like the ones we’ve invested in in the past, like EtsyKickstarterStack Overflow, and Cloudera. We’ve made over 40 investments as angel investors and with our respective firms, but it’s just a start. The opportunities we’ve missed because of not being able to put in bigger checks, and follow on, were giving us a feeling of No.

Years ago, I gave an interview on Inc. magazine about the struggles of getting my first company off the ground, as an unknown and fledgling entrepreneur, and the amazing breakthrough we had, getting into PC Forum, and getting Esther Dyson on board as an investor. At the end of that interview I had said something that later became one of those Pinterest graphics:

“When the world says No No No No No, and you hear a Yes, go towards that Yes as hard as you can.”

I have swum in The Sea of No, which is an inevitable part of the entrepreneurial journey. Sometimes the No means “you’re on the wrong track”. Sometimes the No means: “no one wants this product or service”. Sometimes the No means: “pick something else to work on”. And sometimes the No means, “you’re just not cut out for this”. If you’re a startup that’s only heard Yes, who’s never been rejected, who raised money with no effort, who slid easily into the warm waters of infinite funding, free lunch, foosball and no discipline, you either got it just right–which almost never happens!–or it’s a cause for concern. But when The Beach of Yes appears on the horizon of The Sea of No, where you, the spent swimmer, has been struggling to stay afloat, you might just be–finally, finally, finally–on The True Path.

So. We’re excited about this. Major changes are afoot in the workings of the internet and in society and culture at large. Suppressed voices are finally being heard. We are looking at the end of cars. And though we once believed the internet was about the equitable distribution of power, we have lived through a massive consolidation of power. If people like you don’t get involved in disrupting the new power and building the future, rapacious trolls, megacorps and mercenaries will have their way with all of us.

Is the internet once again reinventing itself as a free and open place where users own their words, and voices and identities? Will we be able to live free of businesses that lure us in to harvest and sell our data? Is it safe to wade back into the water? Is now the time to enter the fray? We think so, yes.

All the things we love–humanity, community, possibility, opportunity–are once again ascendant. Let’s make the future, let’s do great things.

Yes? Yes.