Web 2.0 — powered by numbskulls

Nick Carr, the great shit-disturber that he is, has a post up about what he sees as Web 2.0’s biggest problem: in a word, it’s “numbskulls.” Or rather, the high proportion of numbskulls — meaning either stupid people or those with more opinions than actual knowledge — when compared with people who actually know something or have whatever skills are necessary (the capacity for critical thought, a command of English grammar, etc.). As usual, Nick isn’t afraid to come off as an elitist. In fact, I think he kind of gets a kick out of it.

His point is that projects such as Wikipedia.org aren’t as good as they could be primarily because the people who have the time to devote to them aren’t necessarily the best people to be doing so, because they don’t have the skills or the knowledge — and the people who do have the skills or the knowledge are too busy, or not interested, or get outnumbered by the numbskulls. Here’s a classic Carr riff:

“Wikis and other Web 2.0 platforms for the creation of content are often described in purely egalitarian terms – as the products of communities of equals – [but] that’s just a utopian fantasy… No matter how vast, a community of mediocrities will never be able to produce anything better than mediocre work.”

And then a little later, he paints a picture of Wikipedia.org as a tiny band of smart people (most of whom attended Harvard, no doubt) holding back the wave of human stupidity that threatens to wash over them:

“When you look deeply into Wikipedia, beyond the shiny surface of “community,” you see that the encyclopedia is actually as much, or more, a product of conflict than of collaboration: It’s an endless struggle by a few talented contributors to clean up the mess left by the numbskull horde.”

As usual, Nick has a point underneath all that elitism, and it comes into sharper focus if you read a post by Andrew McAfee that Nick links to. McAfee’s point, as he puts it, is that “there’s also a long tail among people, and it relates not to willingness to consume (i.e. demand) but rather to willingness to produce.” Ross Mayfield makes a similar point about the numbers of people who are willing to contribute to Web 2.0-type ventures, in a post about the “power law of participation.” Ross has also posted a response to Nick, which is here.

So how do you get more people to contribute — or fewer numbskulls? In a response to a comment I posted on his blog, Nick says that he wasn’t suggesting en elite group should pick who contributes and who doesn’t, although I think it’s fair to infer that from what he has written. In any case, how do you guard against the numbskulls? In a post of his own, Umair Haque seems to be arguing much the same thing I would, which is that Wikipedia-type models are self-regulating to some extent, although they probably need “super-users” to guard against vandalism.

Unfortunately, Nick, when you open yourself up to a conversation, sometimes numbskulls show up. Comes with the territory. And as Andrew McAfee argues, the benefits of doing so outweigh the risks, even in a corporate environment. But to make it work, a company’s management has to really want it to, and has to be willing to accept the bad with the good.

Can blogs affect politics and society?

As a lead-up to mesh in May, the Gang of Five — that is me, Rob Hyndman, Mark Evans, Mike McDerment and Stuart “call me Chairman Mao” MacDonald — have been talking a lot (not surprisingly) about the themes we want to look at, and crawling the blogosphere for evidence of how Web 2.0 and blogs are — or aren’t — affecting media, marketing, business and society/politics.

We decided to look at that last one in part because of the effect that bloggers had on the coverage of the Iraq war, on the election of George Bush and even on events such as the Jayson Blair affair at the New York Times — but also because of the effect that bloggers like Michael Geist and Ed “Captain’s Quarters” Morrissey and Joey DeVilla had on the Canadian election, when they helped destabilize and possibly derail the candidacy of Sarmite Bulte, the record labels’ best friend.

But we want to talk about more than that during the panels on the Web and politics/society at mesh in May. Could blogs and other Web-based technologies help non-profit groups and disadvantaged groups gain more of a voice, and thus help affect policy? And even broader than that, what are the implications of “open source” tools such as Wikipedia.org on human society — do they make it better or just reflect the worst elements of human nature? Mark wonders what Jane Jacobs could have done with a blog, and Rob asks whether they turn the blogosphere into an echo chamber. Stuart has some thoughts as well.

There’s plenty of material there for an entire conference, let alone a few panels and keynotes. Hopefully we’ll be able to pack enough of it into the time we have, and get plenty of participation and comments from attendees. If you have any thoughts or links, you can post them here or head over to the mesh wiki and throw them onto a page, or tag them with our del.icio.us links (described at the wiki).

Drinking the Web 2.0 kool-aid

As Rob Hyndman has pointed out on his blog, in organizing the mesh conference coming up in Toronto this May, we have tried to drink as much of our own kool-aid as possible — figuratively, that is — by using Web 2.0 services and features in both planning the conference and in the actual setup, including del.icio.us tags. As Rob has written in the past, we’ve also have made great use of Basecamp, Writeboard.com, Google Chat, Writely.com and Mollyguard. For billing, naturally, we use SecondSite from Mike McDerment (one of the mesh organizers) and his team.

We’ve also added a wiki to the meshconference.com website, which David Crow and the Toronto BarCamp gang helped put together, which allows anyone who is attending to post an offer of a ride, or ask for one, or add links and comments to the various pages that have been set up there. There is also a page for each stream — media, marketing, business and society — with a list of the del.icio.us tags for each panel. Rob and Mark and I have already been tagging articles and blog posts that we’ve come across over the past month or so, to get the categories started, but we’d love it if others wanted to add things that they see too, and then our moderators and panelists will have something they can look over that will help them get up to speed (if they aren’t already).

So if you see a piece that has something interesting to say about how the “social Web” is affecting either media, marketing, businesses or society/politics, get out your del.icio.us labelling gun and tag away.

Fascinated by .ca domain names?

If you live in Canada and just can’t get enough of the domain-name game, Stuart MacDonald would like to hear from you. Stuart’s the guy who started Expedia.ca and has helped us whip the mesh conference into shape over the past couple of months with his mad shao-lin meeting skillz 🙂 And now he is the chairman of the committee that is in charge of nominating people for the board of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority, which is in charge of .ca domain names. Get your applications in early — after you register for mesh, of course.

Brief items that might become posts

  • Google bought Writely.com, which is great, but they might want to take a look at ThinkFree Office, which PCWorld really likes and which just launched an upgrade, including a gigabyte of free storage.
  • Michelle Malkin has launched a conservative blogging and podcasting network called Hot Air (nice, self-deprecating name there Michelle). She calls it “the world’s first full-service conservative Internet broadcast network.” Lookout, Fox.
  • Kathy Sierra, whose site I am growing to like more and more even though it makes my head hurt a lot, writes about “moving up the wisdom hierarchy.” Lots to think about.
  • This makes no sense whatsoever: Skype says it will be selling music from EMI. Is there a business case here I’m missing, or is selling downloads now the online equivalent of selling gum at the cash register — it’s cheap and everybody likes it, so why not?
  • Looks like one of my favourite comedians has a friend in high places: Sacha Baron Cohen, otherwise known as Borat, made some enemies by claiming to be from Kazakhstan — but now the daughter of the leader of that nation says she supports him.

Thanks for playing, Scott

It’s always fun when a rumour — or a rumour-based news story, which is often the same thing — gets poo-poohed by just about everyone, and then turns out to be true. It happened with eBay and Skype not that long ago, and now it’s Scott McNealy’s turn to put one over on The Register and Techdirt and all the other websites and news services that said he wasn’t going to step down as the company’s CEO. Well, he has. The rumours have been going around for awhile now, which is why plenty of people thought they likely weren’t true. They started with Caris & Co. analyst Mark Stahlman, who said in a report in March that since McNealy had more or less managed to right the sinking ship of Sun’s fortunes, he might step down.

More recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that it was likely to happen, but they didn’t have much in the way of timing or details, and so The Register made fun of them for it, and Techdirt likewise poured cold water on the idea, noting that it probably came from Stahlman just like the earlier rumours, and therefore wasn’t any more credible. Maybe Scott timed his departure to make some of those sources look stupid. I wouldn’t put it past him.

As McNealy himself said, “After me, things get boring.” Although he grew quieter as Sun’s stock melted over the past few years (although it has picked up recently), it was fun during the heyday of the Bill and Scott wars to hear what McNealy was going to come out with next. CNET has a great collection of some of his gems, including calling Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates “Ballmer and Butthead” and Windows NT “a giant hair ball.” And despite the dead ends and strategic mistakes, the vision that McNealy and Sun had of “the network is the computer” is a lot closer to being reality than anything Microsoft has come up with.

Now Gates has moved on to become a “chief evangelist” and Scott is doing so too. Does that mean Sun is going to get bought by Google, as some would like to think? Probably not. But expect them to get a whole lot closer. Jonathan Schwartz and Google’s Eric Schmidt are not only former colleagues, but they think alike on a lot of topics. Things could get interesting. The new CEO has a blog post up.

Apple may have won — but is that good?

According to a recent piece in the New York Post, Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs — now also known as the King of Digital Music — is close to winning his battle against the four major record labels, a battle he has been fighting for the past year or so. On the face of it, the issue is fairly simple: Steve wants to keep prices fixed at 99 cents per song, and the record labels want variable pricing. The reality is a little more complicated.

The natural assumption is that the big bad record labels want to push prices up and gouge the consumer even further — and let’s face it, that’s not exactly a stretch, given their history of that kind of thing. But is having Apple fix the prices at 99 cents a song any better? Sure, there are other music services, such as Rhapsody and eMusice and… well, I can’t think of any other ones (except my favourite, allofmp3.com). Setting the prices becomes a different thing when you control as large a proportion of the market as Apple.

Fighting the labels on variable pricing keeps prices of new songs at 99 cents, and therefore prevents the record companies from charging more for their big hits — but it also keeps prices of older songs at 99 cents, when the record companies might like to (and arguably should be able to) price them lower so they can make some money from their “back catalogue” — although some argue they have no intention of doing this.

So is keeping prices fixed at 99 cents a good thing? It is for Apple, but I’m not so sure it is for you or me (Chris “Long Tail” Anderson isn’t sure either). Obviously, a retailer can charge whatever they want for something and consumers are free to go somewhere else — I’m just not sure Steve should be getting all the high fives for digging in his heels on this one.

Russell Beattie pulls the plug

I’m not sure why, but I don’t really find it that surprising that Yahoo employee and mobility evangelist Russell Beattie has hung up his keyboard and closed the doors on his blog, even though he doesn’t really give any reason for the decision. I guess I’m not surprised because it wasn’t that long ago that Russell closed his blog to comments, something I criticized him for at the time — and I think shutting off comments might have been just the first step on a road that led to where Russell is now.

I’m not saying he was wrong to turn off commenting on his blog. That’s a decision each blogger has to make for themselves. As Dave Winer pointed out to me one of the last times I brought this up, Adam Green of Darwinian Web doesn’t have comments and that doesn’t make him a bad person (I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear that, Adam). I just happen to think that having comments, as much as it can be a major pain in the ass, is one of the key things that makes a blog a blog, rather than just a place where you put your thoughts or preach at people. It’s how you become part of the conversation.

So while Russell didn’t really give any reason for deciding to close his blog down, other than to say that he “just decided that I really needed a break, and that I’d really much rather start from scratch at another URL some other time when I’m ready to write again,” I think that shutting off comments was a sign of just being tired with the whole blogging thing, for whatever reason (Om reminds us that sometimes less is more). And closing the doors to the blog completely is obviously the end point of that process. Here’s hoping Russell comes back reinvigorated at some point and rejoins the conversation.

Tension over ad strategy at MySpace

Like a lot of people (judging by the links at memeorandum) I read the New York Times story on MySpace with interest, since it and Facebook are probably the poster-children for the whole online “social networking” phenomenon, or whatever you want to call it. Others — such as Clickety-Clack — have focused on the fact that Google and Yahoo aren’t that interested in advertising on MySpace because they don’t see its users as being an attractive market, since they are mostly interested in “socializing not buying.” Apart from that, however, one of the things that interested me most was the tension between the founders of MySpace — Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson — and the News Corp./Fox Interactive types who are now in the driver’s seat.

Although the article says that Murdoch has tried “to do nothing to interfere with whatever alchemy attracted so many young people to MySpace in the first place,” there are hints of some tension between the MySpace side and the advertising mogul side of the equation. At one point, Ross Levinsohn, the guy in charge of the News Corp. interactive media arm that now controls MySpace, talks about new ideas for revenue, and DeWolfe flatly contradicts him:

“Mr. Levinsohn, for example, said he saw opportunity in the one million bands that have established profiles on MySpace; he said MySpace could charge bands to promote concerts or to sell their songs directly through the site. In an interview the next day, however, Mr. DeWolfe dismissed the idea [saying]… “We never thought charging bands was a viable business model.”

At another point, Levinsohn talks about his plans to work advertisers into the site by giving them their own pages, in the same way that other MySpace.com users have pages, so that users can add them as “friends” and create linkages that will promote the product or service (Wendy’s has already tried this strategy, and gotten 100,000 MySpace users to add its animated hamburger as a friend). But DeWolfe disagrees with this too:

Yet here is another place that executives at Fox and MySpace don’t see eye to eye. Mr. DeWolfe discounted the idea of people creating profile pages for small businesses. “If it was a really commercial profile — the gas station down the street — no one is going to sign up to be one of their friends,” he said. “There is nothing interesting about it.”

Is this just tension between the guy who started something and the corporate executive who is trying to change it? Probably in part. DeWolfe is also no purist when it comes to advertising, since he got his start with pop-up ads and downloadable ad software similar to Comet Cursor. But it will be interesting to see how the MySpace.com user base takes to an aggressive ad push, if that’s what is coming. And it’s also interesting that the NYT article mentions that DeWolfe got the idea for MySpace from Friendster, the former poster child for social networking — and yet the piece never mentions that Friendster flamed out and was replaced by MySpace virtually overnight.

Chernobyl, 20 years after

April 26th is the 20th anniversary of the most horrific nuclear accident in history, when the Chernobyl reactor in Ukraine blew up during a routine test, blasting the 1,000-pound roof of the main reactor building into the air and spreading radioactive waste over much of the northern part of the country and nearby Belarus. Some parts of the Chernobyl region will be contaminated with hazardous levels of radioactivity for 100 years or more, and residents have suffered from high levels of cancerous tumours and other birth defects. Photographer Robert Knoth has documented some of the victims in a photo essay. To see more, click on the picture.