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Barack Obama is a CIA Plant!

One of the things I find really irritating about wingnuts is that they don't appear to think very clearly, and their writing shows it. Here's a typical passage from a typical "run your underwear up the flagpole" bit of conspiracy-baiting from Jim Lindgren at The Volokh Conspiracy:

As part of a joint “project” with SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] (p. 170), Oglesby arranged meetings with Haynes and Business International clients as part of their “round-table meetings,” allowing SDS to explain their opposition to the war (p. 171). New York SDS members continued to meet regularly with Business International even after Oglesby left New York.

Haynes “had come to agree with SDS about the war, racism, and urban poverty.” (Id.) Haynes, who died in 1976, told Oglesby that if he had been in the same generation as Oglesby, he might have joined SDS. (p. 170) After Robert Kennedy died, Haynes even called up Oglesby and urged SDS to riot: “Get your people out and tear the goddamn place into pieces.” (Oglesby, p. 188)

According to Oglesby, the Dohrn/Klonsky wing [of the SDS] was highly suspicious of SDS’s joining in any programs with Business International. Oglesby’s memoir recounts long discussions and interrogations of Oglesby — led by Dohrn, Klonsky, and Arlene Bergman — over Oglesby’s development of SDS links with Business International. [emphasis added]

Of all the firms in all the world, Obama had to walk into the one that years before had closer ties to SDS than any other mainstream business in the world. What luck!

(It's so cute the way scare-quoting "project" turns it into a wingnut dog-whistle.)

The point, I think, is that because Obama worked for a company that eight (or more) years previously had a President who was sympathetic to the aims of the Students for a Democratic Society, we're supposed to be suspicious of Obama's aims, now. As though just having one official who made contacts with the SDS was enough to taint an entire company such that not only would the taint still be there ten to fifteen years later, it would be strong enough to taint in turn everyone who ever worked there for a brief time, or perhaps everyone who was ever associated with them -- and that now, we're supposed to suspect that any of those people might be a sleeper-agent for the ComIntern.

But that's not what's wrong with this passage.

It's not even the dog-whistle invocation of "SDS" as code for "communist", harkening back as it does to the cold war and the days of "useful idiots." (By the way, the Right has useful idiots, too -- they just all think the idiot is someone else.)

What's really wrong with this passage is that Lindgren screws up telling the story.

He wants to establish "ties" between SDS and Business International. Clearly he wants to imply that those ties are somehow active, that they have sufficient vitality to make us legitimately worried about Obama as a result. Yet he takes great care (probably because, like any writer, he's loathe to edit) to keep a passage that expresses great ambivalence ont he part of SDS over being involved with Business International. He doesn't say why, but suspicion of Business International's motives seems like a plausible reason. Apparently there have been rumors off and on that Business International was a CIA front, like Coca-Cola (though it's as easy to imagine SDS's suspicion starting those rumors as being in response to them).

Here's where it gets sloppy: Lindgren seques from that into trying to draw the connection between scary-SDS and scary-Obama by way of (possibly spooky) business research firm Business International, right after clearly establishing that some influential elements of scary-SDS were scared of Business International.

So that's how Lindgren screws uptelling the story: He precedes his closer with evidence that undermines (if not negates) it. And because of his own confirmation bias, he probably doesn't even realize he did it.

At another level, though, this is merely typical conspiracy wanking. He's taking a random connection and tossing it against the wall. It's as though I were to point out that John McCain consorted with Democrats as a Naval attache to Congress in the 1970s. Some lunatic might make the leap to associate him with Democrats and by extension with the anti-war movement. Voila: John McCain is now a secret Commie, in the mind of one lunatic. It's a dog whistle. The great holy grail of conspiracy baiting is to find the dog whistle that calls the most dogs. Sometimes it's best to leave the crap in, because you can just never know what will resonate with a lunatic. 

The juciest irony, though, is that based on Lindgren's story, it's just as easy to create a nutjob conspiracy narrative where Barack Obama is a CIA plant as it is to create one where he's a secret Commie.

It does encourage the development of poor rhetorical skills, though.

"But I might wake up king someday, and if I do...."

Deep in the middle of a surreal attempt at social analysis that reads more like a bad acid-trip, Mark Levin at the NRO stumbles upon one true thing: "Obama's appeal to the middle class is an appeal to the "the proletariat," as an infamous philosopher once described it...."

Congratulations, Mr. Levin: You've defined Populism. To paraphrase Aaron Sorkin's great fake-president, the problem with an America where anyone can become rich is that everyone thinks they will, and makes their electoral choices accordingly. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean making a workable plan to become rich, or even necessarily working especially hard: It most typically means a lot of day-dreaming, lotto-buying, and planning to make sure that THE GOVERNMENT doesn't get a chance to take away any of your wondrous, hypothetical, chance-gotten gains.

Put another way: We act in the interest of the person we fantasize about becoming, instead of the person we actually are.

Of course there are a lot of people who work hard for what they get. But it's more or less never been true that wealth or status has a direct relationship with how hard you work -- or, for that matter, how smart you are. In fact, even some conservatives take great pains to make it clear just how much of it is down to the opportunities you have.

Cleverness, though -- now that's very important. You have to know how to work the angles, to work people. You have to have social intelligence, at a minimum, but that's not usually enough. No, to really become wealthy or important, you most often have to have a willingness to hurt other people to get what you want.

The Masonic Mac

Some design-geek at Frog Design thinks that iPods are "universally" described as "clean" because the iPod "references bathroom materials." It's kind of a silly little think-piece, not least in that it makes a point and then throws out a lot of unrelated arguement in an attempt to hide the fact that it doesn't really make much of a case for what might otherwise be an interesting assertion. But that's not what I'm writing about.

A comment in-thread lead me to this insight: Being a "Mac Person" is a little like being a mason.

Which is to say, to be a "Mac Person" is to feel that you belong to something, while at the same time feeling yourself to be different from other (lesser) people. If you belong to a secret society of some kind, you feel both privileged to belong, and empowered by your connection to that society.

Membership in the secret society comes with a cost: Dues, expenses for robes or other paraphernalia (as Stetson Kennedy wrote in his book about infiltrating the Klan), and any opportunity cost associated with providing expected assistance to other members. Any extra costs are obviously assumed to be at least offset by benefits, by "believers" in the secret society. Those costs are their "dues"; they're what they pay for the privilege of being made special by the organization.

Committing to the Apple Way has similar costs: Software is more expensive and less plentiful; hardware is often proprietary (as with iPod peripherals), or hardware options more limited (if you don't believe it, try to buy a webcam off the shelf at a mainstream store); software conventions are different, and require retraining. Apple users (rationally) presume there to be offsetting benefits, typically cast in terms of usability. My own experience using and supporting Macs tells me that those benefits are illusory, but that's beside the point: Mac users assume them to exist, and act on that assumption.

But they also gain a sense of superiority from it, and they get that reinforced every time they pay more for something, every time they have a document interchange problem with a Windows-using compatriot, every time have a problem figuring out what to do when they sit down at a non-Mac microcomputer.

The extra cost is understood as an investment. They are paying dues. Being a Mac Person is, in that way, a little like being a Mason. Or at least, a little like what we might imagine it's like to be a Mason, since most of us have never actually met one.

Quote for the Moment

So this is a critical moment. We must do all we can to limit the civilizational fallout from this bombing. But this is not going to be easy. Why? Because unlike after 9/11, there is no obvious, easy target to retaliate against for bombings like those in London. There are no obvious terrorist headquarters and training camps in Afghanistan that we can hit with cruise missiles. The Al Qaeda threat has metastasized and become franchised. It is no longer vertical, something that we can punch in the face. It is now horizontal, flat and widely distributed, operating through the Internet and tiny cells.

Because there is no obvious target to retaliate against, and because there are not enough police to police every opening in an open society, either the Muslim world begins to really restrain, inhibit and denounce its own extremists - if it turns out that they are behind the London bombings - or the West is going to do it for them. And the West will do it in a rough, crude way - by simply shutting them out, denying them visas and making every Muslim in its midst guilty until proven innocent.

And because I think that would be a disaster, it is essential that the Muslim world wake up to the fact that it has a jihadist death cult in its midst. If it does not fight that death cult, that cancer, within its own body politic, it is going to infect Muslim-Western relations everywhere. Only the Muslim world can root out that death cult. It takes a village.

What do I mean? I mean that the greatest restraint on human behavior is never a policeman or a border guard. The greatest restraint on human behavior is what a culture and a religion deem shameful. It is what the village and its religious and political elders say is wrong or not allowed. Many people said Palestinian suicide bombing was the spontaneous reaction of frustrated Palestinian youth. But when Palestinians decided that it was in their interest to have a cease-fire with Israel, those bombings stopped cold. The village said enough was enough.

~ excerpt from â??If It's a Muslim Problem, It Needs a Muslim Solutionâ? by Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times, July 8, 2005

Friends and Longevity

Family, friends, confidants. How one defines those terms and what role each plays in a personâ??s life might influence that personâ??s longevity.

As the old saying goes, you can choose your friends but you can't choose your family. A new study suggests that if you want to live a long life, you should focus on the friends.

A team of Australian researchers has found that having a strong network of friends seems to help seniors live longer -- more so even than having relatives, children or a close confidant. ["Having wide circle of friends may be the ticket to long life" by Helen Branswell CP, The London Free Press, 2005-6-16]

Categories. Yes, they are important, at least in a general sense, for contrast/comparison. However, while you might want to launch busybody Aunt Gertie with the snappish personality on a rocket to her own private planet, on the other hand, you might develop a strong friendship with your adult daughter or son that transcends familial duty or expectations.

Relatives can be friends, but â??the researchers didn't look at whether there was a difference between supportive children and children whose demands or lifestyles create stress or conflict for their aging parents.â?

If, as the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child, it just might take a village to support the elderly. Actually, the village supports us all, if you think about it.

So, choose friends, a wide circle of them, and donâ??t lump them into one bag separate from relatives or confidants. Some friends might fit more than one category. The more, the merrier, as I see it.

The User Experience is the User Experience

Jakob Nielsen, among others, has remarked that "the network is the user experience." They're all wrong, and they're all right.

Browsing through UseIt.com yesterday left Nielsen's June 2000 predictions of sweeping change in the user experience loaded in my browser when I sat down at my desk this morning:

Since the late 1980s, hypertext theory has predicted the emergence of a navigation layer that would be the nexus of the user experience. Traditionally, we assumed that this would happen by integrating the browser with the operating system to create a unified interface for manipulating remote information and local files. It has always been silly to have some stuff treated specially because it happened to come in over a certain network. Browsers must die as independent applications.

It is counter-productive to have users suffer sub-standard user interfaces for applications that happen to run across the Internet as opposed to the local client-server environment. Application functionality requires more UI than document browsing: another reason browsers must die.

Silly, counter-productive: Sure. I've always thought so. But the tendency in the late 1990s was to assume that document browsing was exactly enough. And though the peculiar insanity of things like "Active Desktop" (which strove to make the Win95 desktop work just like the Web circa 1999) does seem to have passed, it remains true that the bias is toward the browser, not toward rich application-scope UIs.

Which is to say that Nielsen, in this old piece, is failing to heed his own advice. Users are inherently conservative: They continue to do what continues to work, which drives a feedback loop.

But more than that, he -- like almost everyone else I can think of, except myself -- is missing the single most important thing about modern computing life: People don't use the same computer all the time. Working from home, now, I frequently use two: My desktop, an OS X Mac, and my laptop, a Sony Picturebook running Windows 2000. In my most recent full time job (where I sometimes spent 12 hour days on a routine basis), I used two more systems: A desktop running Windows NT and a laptop running Windows 2000. And that's not even counting the Windows 2000 desktop I still occasionally use at home. (And would use more if I had an easy way to synchronize it with my Mac and my Picturebook.)

And so it's interesting to look at each of Nielsen's predictions as of June 2000:

  1. Amazon is healthier than ever, in no small part because "zero click payments everywhere" are no closer now than they were in 2000. (See [3].)
  2. Yahoo's network of services is healthier than ever, in no small part because people are less and less tied to specific machines. (See [3].)
  3. Websites know your preferences only insofar as you invest those with a particular services vendor/provider, like Yahoo or Google. That's actually a reflection of increasing network-centricity: These services are finally recognizing that people have lives that cross many machines.
  4. AOL is failing rapidly, but its proprietary messaging system is still going strong -- as are the proprietary messaging systems of Yahoo and Microsoft. Messaging aggregators like Trillian are still bleeding edge.

None of this is to say that I don't think the network is the user experience. He's sort of right about that -- or at least, he's right that it sort of should be, that things would work better if we made apps more network aware. After all, in the age of ubiquitous wireless, the network is spreading to places it's never been before. But what the 2005 situation reveals is that relatively low-impact solutions like using cell phone networks for instant messaging or logging-in to websites have trumped high-impact solutions like re-architecting the user experience to eliminate the web. Instead of using the increasingly ubiquitous broadband services to synch all our stuff from a networked drive, we're carrying around USB keychain drives and using webmail. Instead of doing micropayments, we're still living in a world of aggregated vendors a la Amazon and charity (Wikipedia) or ad-/sales-supported services (IMDB, GraceNote).

At a more fundamental level, we have to be mindful that we don't define "the network" too narrowly. Consider the old school term "sneakernet": Putting files on floppies to carry them from one person to another. It was an ironism -- sneaker-carried "networking" wasn't "networking", right? -- but it revealed a deeper truth: "Networking" describes more than just the stuff that travels across TCP/IP networks. At a trivial level, it also includes (mobile) phone networks and their SMS/IM/picture-sharing components. But at a deeper level, it covers the human connections as well. In fact, the network of people is really at least as important as the network of machines.

Understood that way, "the network is the user experience" takes on a whole new meaning.

Podcasting Is Dead. Long Live Podcasting.

I'm mildly surprised that in the storm of mutual annoyance over podcasting, there hasn't been a clearer statement of where, how and why podcasting can succeed and fail. I suppose I shouldn't be, since clear-headed analysis doesn't generally sell trackbacks, but I think it's a really interesting phenomenon that will teach us a lot if we baseline and understand it correctly. And that can start with etymology.

As it is:

podcasting = [i]Pod + [broad/multi]casting = "multi-casting to people's iPods"

As it may be:

1: [private] podcasting = pod + [narrow/multi]casting = "narrowcasting to my pod"
2: [public] podcasting = [i]Pod + broadcasting = "broadcasting to people's media players"

Podcasting "as it is" currently understood is a short transitional phase. As a popular blogging modality, it won't last beyond 2005. Yet by 2006, something or things called "podcasting" will be extremely popular, and might even drive some interesting and powerful changes in the distribution of information.

Podcasting will very soon split into two distinct types of output: One that's highly personal, targeted at people you know and who hence know your voice (and hence don't require high production values), who are in tune with your interests (and hence don't require extensive meta-data to get your point). Personal podcasting will serve to cement bonds among groups of people who are not immediately and intimately connected. The second form, pro-podcasting, will be the kind of stuff David Berlind is talking about: Professionally or quasi-professionally produced output, primarily from media outlets but also from people for whom it's cost-effective to produce output that's essentially promotional.

The reasons are really simple and kind of rock solid, and they are simply that it's just not cost effective for either the 'caster to produce a high-quality podcast unless you've got facilities, skill and time at your command to do so; or for the listener to spend a lot of time listening to something that s/he could apprehend a lot faster and with more flexiblity by reading it. A podcast of sufficient quality that even interested strangers would want to listen to takes time to produce; furthermore, on-air reading is not something everyone can do well enough to make for a tolerable listening experience. Podcasts are also more or less invulnerable to full-text indexing (which makes it seem ironic to me that many of its proponents are also strong proponents of letting Google traffic arbitrate on the importance of a resource). It's arguable that software solutions will be found to these problems, and I think there's merit to those arguments. But that's not to say that people will then actually use those solutiong to blog as podcasts.

Typical "pro-podcasters" will range from Bill O'Reilly to Al Franken to Dave Barry. I wouldn't expect it to include people like Glenn Reynolds and Markos Moulitsas, because too much of their value comes from nimbleness and textual integration with the blogosphere. It may include people like Wonkette or Drudge, who could use their pro-podcasts to drive spiral traffic to their website, and vice-versa. Pro-podcasting will have a market-mover effect in terms of driving progress toward "radio TiVo" and pushing media players (and media players of all kinds, since it will rapidly start to include offline video content).

But it's the personal-podcasters who will have the most interesting effects. The obvious market is distributed groups of friends and families -- people will be able to send narrowly-targeted multicasts to groups of people with whom they share an emotional connection. But there are also tremendous potential business applications for personal-podcasting. Personal podcasting could be used to facilitate workgroup solidarity, send what amount to persistent offline voicemails, even facilitate something like non-real-time audio chat.

And I find it interesting that I haven't heard about these uses, yet. Perhaps it's that for the first-movers and strong evalngelists like Curry, Searls and Winer, there really isn't a separation between the business and personal pplications. Which would also be interesting, if true. But more on that another time.

Podcasting By Any Other Name

People like to find arguments. It gives them a place to plant their intellectual flags and say "I was here first!" For example, there's apparently an argument over whether "podcasting" is "significant" from an investment perspective. David Berlind weighs in on his ZDNet blog. Berlind's answer is quite oblique, and while making some very important points implicitly, I think it will be accused by the podcasting faithful of 'not getting' podcasting; I'll accuse him of the same thing, for different reasons.

Basically, as far as I'm concerned, "podcasting" borders on being a hoax, of sorts: It's a name concocted more or less with the sole purpose of counting coup in the blogosphere, that's been blown up as something important and significant, and in blogospheric terms, it is both, but not on the scale that's presumed on its behalf. Podcasting as practiced in blogland will have very little impact on what the thing that will be called "podcasting" will look like in the future. It's one of those things that's important for the impact it's said to have, and not for the impact it actually has. It's important, in short, for the same reason that Jessica Simpson is [sic] important: Because people say so. It's got nothing to do with her singing.

The spur to Berlind's meditation was a question from a fellow reporter, working on a story (and hence, kept anonymous -- and no, I do not find anything sinister in that). "Old media" blokes, it seems, are still wondering whether blogs are "significant", and -- here's the curious part -- what that means for "podcasting". "His perception is that the blogger phenomenon is insignificant," Berlind's colleague supplies, "making podcasting negligible." From an investment perspective, of course.

Well, it's a terrible analysis, of course, as far as it goes: Major acquisitions and strategic investments are being made that are directly motivated by the idea of blogging, and so blogging is by definition "siginificant", and so we have to wonder what the heck this expert really means. Even if the raw numbers of new bloggers (tens of millions in the last year alone, similar to the boom-period growth figures for internet use) don't impress him, he's myopic if he doesn't understand that blogging per se isn't the issue; it's just the nascent stage of new modes of mass-personal communication. My own nutshell evaluation of this particular analyst is that I suspect he doesn't actually know what he's talking about.

Nevertheless, there is a grain of truth in the analysis. Personalistic "morning coffee notes", produced on an ad hoc basis by random bloggers, will never be significant in this "investment" sense. (Though I can see some interesting possibilities, there, for things that will be significant.) Why? Because the medium sucks; podcasting will never, ever become popular in the way that blogging is popular. On the other hand, as Berlind rightly points out, the rather old idea of media-shifting print content to voice (which used to go by the name "radio") and then mode-shifting that from a stream to an offline file, not only will be big, but has been going on for a while. In fact, it's older than the web, even on the Internet. The only things that're new about it are, first, doing the notification and distribution through RSS, and second, automating the media load onto portable devices.

Those are important things, sure; but the podcasters didn't think of them. They just took their particular process public. And the particular "open" modality that they specified will be important during a transitional period -- but it's not where the money will be made or most of the traffic will happen. That will be on satellite. Podcasting in its current form is merely an interim step to the full realization of potential of satellite radio. "[U]sing the technology to audio-tivo satellite" would be just a start; wait until Apple or XM really get going on these ideas.

The Importance of Blogging Earnestly

The Business Blogging Boot Camp (@ Windsor Media) provides a more bottom-line perspective on the growth of blogging, driven by Fortune's 1/10/2005 feature story on technology trends; their observations came to me as part of an email thread related to the BBC story I mentioned last night. They stress the importance of blogging for business, and furthermore the importance of blogging earnestly. They cite the Kryptonite affair and moves toward blog-monitoring by Bacon's Information -- the latter characterized as tentative, "inane", 'Not Getting It.' (I'm usually leery when a huge quant-marketing shop is characterized as Not Getting It. Often it's true, yes; but as far as I can see they often understand a lot more than they bother to explain to us proles. But I digress.)

There are two things I feel compelled to point out before going further: First, blogs are qualitatively analogous to specialist newsletters, which are nothing new to savvy marketers. As with specialty newsletters, the influence of a blog hinges on a subtle balance between the publisher's access to information, their (perceived) personal integrity, and the volume (direct or indirect) of their readership. What's new is the speed of blogging. I'm leery of pointing out emergent qualities, but it's hard to argue that a ten-day cycle time doesn't indicate that (a lack of) quantity may indeed, in this case, have a quality all its own.

The second thing I feel compelled to point out -- and this is both much more and much less important than it sounds -- is that the Kryptonite business not only didn't start on blogs, but didn't get its first traction there. It started on the cycling boards, and that's where it was hashed out, refined, debugged, and researched, and where the first instructional videos were posted, before it was ever reported on a blogospherically-integrated weblog. Some of these bicycling boards are almost as old as the web, and most have many members who trace their net-cred back to Usenet days. My point being that anyone focusing only on blogs as such is setting themselves up for obsolescence. Blogs as they are, are almost certainly not blogs as they will be.

Anyway, Windsor Media's take is largely blogospheric orthodoxy. And in practical terms, it's probably right: The important thing for businesses to do right now is to make it part of some people's jobs to go out, and read and post like humans. But there's a second thing that not only needs to happen, but will happen, and what's more will be enabled by the first: Smart businesses will take steps to understand how the blogosphere works, and how it can be gamed, and then they will go forth and game it. And it will work. The knowledge required will come from a few main sources: From big outfits like Bacon and free-range old-school marketing pundits (who will keep it to themselves and share out bits of wisdom to key clients); and from less old-school marketing pundits like Darren Barefoot and BL Ochman, and from product evangelism folks at big companies (who as a group will tend to share it on their blogs, undercutting Bacon et al's old-school attempts to make money off consulting). And, perhaps most important of all, it will come from research in social network analysis. More on that another time.

Blogging will be gamed by corporate and business interests, make no mistake about that. Because it can be, and is being, gamed. It happens every day. And, contrary to the blogospheric orthodoxy, the broader the cross-section of people who get involved in blogging, the easier it gets to game the system without looking like a weasel. And if the golden rule of capitalist systems is that money wants to make more money (and I'm pretty sure it's something like that), and if blogging has an impact on the growth and flow of money, then money will drive blogging, and blogging will get gamed.

Now I'm getting into blogging heterodoxy. The conventional wisdom on the blogging ethos is very cluetrain, and in fact, the Kryptonite affair does indeed show a real "cluetrain" cause-effect loop. I missed it at the time because I just didn't tune in to the story, but the folks at Fortune and Windsor Media are right about that: The ten-day problem-to-product recall cycle at Kryptonite was characterized by all the corporate communications failures criticized in the Cluetrain Manifesto. It just took a lot longer for this first clear case to emerge than either they or, frankly, I thought it would.

The orthodox position is that the more people get involved in blogging, the harder it gets to game the system. It's a variation on the open-source golden rule of debugging ("Given enough eyes, all bugs are trivial"): "Given enough eyes, all misinformation will be found." But open-source debugging works (when it works, which it often doesn't, but that's another story) because the "eyes on the code" belong to people who know how to spot a problem, and have the capability to affect it more or less directly. In blogging, the "eyes on the information" are often people with little or no real expertise. Much of what they spout is nonsense.

And yet, it's effective.

The blogosphere shifts like a body of water: Fast, and irresistibly. Part of the reason that happens is that the blogging community is comprised largely of small communities with large enough membership to make an impact, and what's more, those communities overlap: PoliBloggers are tight with techbloggers who are tight with lifestyle bloggers who are tight with polibloggers.... So when the loop has looped a few times, we find that a relatively small group of people can pretty reliably and rapidly shift the character of the blogosphere. But as the blogosphere becomes larger, it grows more statistically homogeneous, and small communities of movers will not have the same kind of predictable results anymore. Then it will seem less like water, and more like mud.

But I digress, again. I started this to talk about gaming the blogosphere, and that this will happen, I do not doubt for an instant. There's a lot of money riding on this, after all. Some people will figure out how to game the blogosphere -- to game the cluetrain. It will be a painful process with lots of false starts, but we are well beyond the beginning of the process. It started long before the Kryptonite affair; if I had to pick a point in time, I'd pick the consolidation of successful blogs like Wonkette, Gizmodo and ... under the Gawker Media banner. Gawker sells lots of ads, gets lots and lots of daily eyeballs, and their more overtly commercial blogs (like Gizmodo and Jalopnik) have pull with the product managers by virtue of the fact that they can say things like:

What consumers wantâ??an out-of-box way to share and transmit files between different storage media and computers (and users)â??is exactly what manufacturers don't want to give them, but they'll tease us a little. So, if you're really rich, DigitalDeck Entertainment Network is busting out an in-home network PC to gear to DVD sharing system that costs $4000 - $5000. It probably consists of a bunch of cables and a universal remote that your geeked-out younger brother could hack together himself.

And so, we've come back around again to the specialist newsletter: I take Gizmodo seriously (and I confess, I do read it more or less every day) because I see things like this that indicate to me that they bother to think a bit about what they're reviewing. They have credibility for me because they speak not merely in a human voice, but in one that says credible things. And they have the benefit of comprehensiveness because somebody (namely, Gawker Media) is paying them to do nothing but that.

And by the way, at some point does it stop being "blogging" and start being journalism? Open question, IMO.

The Latest Installment of "The Web as Meritocracy"

One of the few lessons I've learned since I was a young boy is that the commerical marketplace is largely a meritocracy, but not a technical one. It's a marketing meritocracy....

[Anil Dash]

Note to self to add this to my list of dangerous memes: "The Web as Meritocracy." Call it the "nigritude ultramarine" meme.

Furthermore, Dash maintained, his victory proves one thing: That the Web is a meritocracy.

"A page that's read by people instead of robots is going to do better," he said.

[Wired News, via BoingBoing]

There are some really good, basic, honest techniques for getting placement, but they take work. What Anil Dash is talking about is one of those techniques, and in his narrow slice of the web it's the best single technique. It's not in the least surprising to me that this worked, especially given the "insanely generous" weighting that Google gives to blog pages; this is the tactic that I outline for people whenever they ask me about how to get Google placement.

And that this kind of technique works does tend to foster something that looks like a meritocracy. But it is not, in fact, a meritocracy at all: It's merely a measure of popularity. And that something is popular does not mean it's true.

I've found it's important to explain the distinction I'm drawing, because there seems to be a really quite strange tendency on the part of many technophiles to believe that appearance is essentially identical with reality. ("If it resembles a duck, it might as well be one.") I think one big reason for this is that in the limited frame of relevance comprised of what's relevant to a software or data interface, appearance is in fact reality. It's fair to say that a deep and conscious grokking of this fact is one of the most essential characteristics of a good net-hacker.

To be fair (and with due reference to the first quote), I'd be surprised if Anil Dash doesn't understand that. Or Doctorow, for that matter. Though sometimes I wonder if people lose appreciation for the finer distinctions after being beaten incessantly over the head with the "Virtual Is Real" squeak-hammer day after day after weak after year...but I digress, as usual.

To Dash's point, you could construe the web as a "marketing meritocracy", but that's really just a way of exposing the ramifications of Metcalfe's Law. The "merit" at hand isn't Anil Dash's personal merit, nor even his technical merit: It's the weight of his reputation, which is a function of how the brand known as "Anil Dash" has been marketed.

Anil Dash didn't receive his "winning" ranking by merit in a personal sense, or even in a real technical sense. Rather, he won it by gaming the system, so if the results of this competition demonstrate anything, in fact, it's that the web is not a meritocracy -- unless by "meritocracy", you are restricting the judgement of merit to social engineering skills.

One stock response to all of this would be: "So what? Systems get gamed. It's all subjective." Which brings us back around to Lysenkoism and intellectual relativism. It seems to me that to argue that reality is the result achieved by the best gamesman is to give up on the idea of knowledge, in a sense.

I can't have it? OK, now I really have to have it...

From the "I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members" department, it's interesting to note that the hottest tickets in technologically-enabled "personal networking", Orkut and GMail, are invitation only.

"Evil" or not, it's brilliand marketing. The rationale for Orkut could ring true; after all, the highest-quality networking contacts are made by drawing-in to the network, rather than by reaching-in.

The GMail manouver is clearly a pure marketing ploy, though the real aim is obscured. Google understand the importance of image ("don't be evil") perhaps better than any major player in technology. Their feel-good image has bought them fierce loyalty from many of their followers; challenging the integrity of Google (even with sound arguments) is a sure way to get onesself roundly excoriated. At least until the privacy and legal issues can be worked out, it's as beneficial to Google to to have GMail available only on a limited basis as it would be to have it available to all.

Belay that: It's actually better, since current legal challenges are such that Google's ability to advertise on GMail is, at present, severely constrained.

Plogs Will Set Us Free

The Happy Tutor points to jonh @ Wirearchy offering thoughts on project blogging ("plogging" [daypop | google | teoma]).

jonh gets part of the way -- the same part of the way that Jeffersonian-tinged net.libertarians usually get: The tech has the power; the tech will cause changes that can cause changes.

I'll bet that in about five years ... by 2010 ... the use of blogs in the workplace will be widespread. This will require the continued spread of "transparency" in the dynamics of networked organizations, and so will continue to create pressure on core issues like leadership, structure and the processes by which people are managed in an interconnected information-based environment.

Just look at the pressures being faced by Donald Rumsfeld and you'll see an early signal - will leaders be able to lie their way through competitive challenges or major change in organizations ?

Powerful ideas, to be sure.

But as usual for the more optimistic heirs of Thomas J, he doesn't close the loop. The Tutor points out an obvious response:

Well, just look at Karl Rove. Yes, they will lie bigger and lie better. And nets will be the Terrorist tool of choice, demonized. Will the guards at GITMO blog when they return home, traumatized? Or will they take Prozac and wave flags? Did the SS write memoires? The story strong enough to extinguish evidence, leaving only the snow, the trees, and one lonely owl against the night. When the truth is ugly, the mind small, bet on lies. Unless our poets get off their postmodern ass. Where is our Mandelstam or Brodsky?

I would add (and add, ad nauseum, as often as I have to) that there are precious few tools that aid freedom which cannot be used to suppress it.

One error here is mistaking transparency for a technology; transparency is merely enabled by the technology.

Transparency can be shut off -- or, more ominously, controlled. Transparency need not be total, or even nearly total, in order to reap its benefits. The real cluetrain will run on rails paid for by people with lots of money or government influence, and those people will be placing restrictions on the passenger manifest: No bolsheviks allowed.

Trolls

As a current moderator of an online discussion list, Iâ??ve become accustomed to the inevitable stream of bots and trolls trying to pervade communities. Tools have been developed to help ease the anguish of moderating, but weâ??ve opted for moderating new members and a few older ones instead of more stringent restricted memberships and closing archives to the public. We hold a tight rein on the focus of our list, which seems to diffuse troublemakers with their own agenda.

Some trolls are very clever and even work in groups. But, is there indeed a more insidious underlying schema? Are these Simple Vandals or a Unique Social Movement? This theme was pursued by Amy Dhala at the University of Texas. After reading her descriptions of troll subtypes, it becomes clear that the Internet does attract its share of juvenile delinquents, adult hard drug users, and personalities of varying dysfunction.

Dhala goes even further,

â??The collective behavior aspects of these trolls show strong Marxist tendencies towards the development of a sociological subset.â?

Marxist tendencies? With the permeation of The Right Wing in our government since this paper was written, the term â??Marxistâ? has been diluted to name-calling for some, often in black and white fashion directed to those who must be â??againstâ? us if they are not â??withâ? us. Considering this environment, could even entire Internet lists be viewed as showing â??strong Marxist tendenciesâ?? Caution in labeling might be advised.

Itâ??s one thing to identify trolling profiles, but the tag of â??Marxist tendenciesâ? might be a more precarious, divisive leap.

"On Social Software Consultancy"

Man, the threads just never stop weaving...

An overview piece on "social software" and its high-level requirements, from the perspective of needing to deliver recommendations to a client: Matt Webb, "On Social Software Consultancy", INTERCONNECTED, courtesy Drupal.org.

Worth a detailed read-through; need to come back to this...

Commodifying Trust

I'm still not touching it. It's more than subverting the trust relationship: It's commodifying it.

At base, that's what Friendster and its ilk are facilitating: The commodification of trust relationships. Once those relationships are commodified, trust itself becomes undermined. At least, any trust that digs deeper than the layer of humanity where all experience can be understood in terms of economic transactions.

That is, until some new basis for common trust.

One place to find that is in "faith" -- i.e., in communities of religious practice.

Another is in these "high-tech tribes" that folks like Cory Doctorow talk about without end. But since the tokens for entry to those tribes are relatively facile (blogrolling consistently over a period of time should do it), the "tribal" connections don't go very deep.

And at another level, it's more than a little insulting to even refer to them as "tribes". That's a term we've previously used to refer to very special communities of shared allegiance or experience or -- most often -- blood.

There is a tendency among people, to minimize the complexity of a thing once it has been described. So Sterling or Stephenson can describe new tribes, or Howard Rheingold can write books about them, and they suddenly enter the vocabulary and the consciosness. But the form is grossly simplified, in the kind of way that lets us see the Amish as lovable relics. Anyone giving Rumspringa more than a moment's casual thought should be prepared to make a simple leap: These are not simpletons; they have not recoiled from the world, but rather made a conscious choice to live in their own world, and we have about as much chance of understanding why as we do of chatting with Wittgenstein's lion.

Closed Openness

As "social networking" merely now approaches over-hyped status, already we're warned of spam -- or rather, SNAM ("Social Network Spam"): Members of your networks, once, twice, or more removed, use the connection to market to you.

It's like CutCo or Tupperware, but somehow worse in the way that spam is somehow worse than unwanted phone calls. You can screen the phone, and you just don't get as many of them -- it costs too much.

But worse yet, it subverts something that could be of terrific value -- that, indeed, we're going to desperately need in a virtual future. Which doesn't mean we're going to slow our progress toward that future, of course: It will merely look quite different from the way it could.

A reaction is coming. As the barriers between people come down, and in absence of social controls on action, we are bound to become more closed than before.

I don't know exactly what form this reaction will take, but I have a dark and abiding fear that religion will be involved.

Is It Time For Post-Neo-Marxism?

Over the last two years, I've given a fair piece of my idle-cycle time to thinking about how we go about making people aware of what's in their true economic and personal interest -- and how to organize people to further those interests.

I've been thinking, in other words, about class consciousness.

I toyed with the idea of trying to start a "professionals guild", that people could join to support one another, bargain for health care, provide reference or job-skills services, etc. Each downturn the economy takes brings us closer to the (to me, nightmare) vision of 'jobs and email without borders'; if we were going to end up there, I reasoned, we'd better have a posse behind us when we did.

I thought the August Group might be a start down that path. But what I learned from that was that to get something going, you've got to fight to make it work every day, and what's more, you've got to have an idea of what you want to accomplish. If both of those things aren't true, you've got nothing.

The key for all of this is trust: Do you trust the people you are committed to helping? Do you trust them to be professional (whatever that means)? Do you trust them to validate your endorsement?

Certification doesn't solve that problem. Professionalism is something that's known by reputation, not certified by test or process.

Technology goes stale, and that's especially true for Microsoft technology. (Not a slam, just a fact -- it's designed that way.) Today's MCSE is tomorrow's trivial wall-decoration. Much more of value are the projects you've worked on, and the opinions of their stakeholders.

But of course, getting that information would take time, and can't be automated.

And what's more, when you get it, the impressions are colored by the fact that almost no project is properly defined to begin with, so no one can honestly tell why it succeeded or failed, or who was responsible.

And while that's a truism across modern industry, no groups of professionals in business know more about that than IT and Development.

It's all about quality control; ...

...which is to say, it's all about controlling the quality to make sure it never gets high enough that folks are getting something free that they could be conned into paying for.

Online personals are big business. It used to work like this:

  1. You sign up for free, and get to see all these attractive people you could be dating.
  2. Some of them are members. You can hope that one of the members contacts you. But you can't contact them, because only members can reach out.
  3. Eventually you've stewed on it enough; you join, contact the boy/girl of your dreams, and live happily ever after (or not).

In any case, anyone you responded to could respond back to you.
Now it's different: Generally, you can only contact someone if they're a paid member, too. OK, well, I suppose that makes some kind of sense: Self selection of the "serious", and all that rubbish.

Except, if that were the real goal, you'd provide some kind of an indicator that said "this person can't respond to your messages". Except, you can't do that, because then the potential subscriber would realize that they were looking at a pool of potential mates that was actually quite a bit smaller than they thought.

In other words, it's a swindle -- a bait and switch. You can join for free, and post a profile, but all you're doing is providing the company with more bait. No one who sees your profile can talk to you, even if they paid for the service.

Now, this is clearly bad usability design, and bad customer service. After all, people think they're buying one thing (access to all these attractive people), and what they're actually buying is another, lesser thing (access to some unspecified subset of these attractive people).

Of course, it's all legal, because they don't lie to you: Somewhere on their site, you can bet, there's a FAQ or a short paragraph that says this is how it works. But they don't go out of their way to tell you the truth, either; with a relatively simple change to the UI, like a green-dot or a red-dot next to a profile, you'd be able to tell whether your messages to this Other of your Dreams was going into their inbox or into a black hole.

The bottom line is that businesses like Yahoo and Match and AOL do their calculations and make their bets -- and by now, those formulae have gotten pretty good. They pretty much know how many people are going to get fooled, and take the bait, and how many people are going to see through it and get pissed off enough to quit. And, more important, how many people are going to see through, get pissed -- and take the bait, anyway.

The 'net was supposed to empower everybody to participate in a global conversation about what was being bought and sold -- what "they" (really, their companies) were buying and selling. In the process of all that irrational exhuberance, a few things got forgotten: Money can still buy power; somebody else always owns the physical plant, or can get to; all else being equal (or inferior), big is still better.

And you can still fool all of the people some of the time. And that's good enough. Or bad enough, as the case may be.

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