Hey, CEOs can steal too! Neener, neener!

After reading about the stunt that Macmillan Publishers CEO Richard Charkin pulled at a recent conference, where he briefly took two laptops from a Google booth before returning them — followed by a grade-school-style taunt about the search engine getting “a little of its own medicine” — I posted a comment on his blog. For some reason it wasn’t accepted, so I feel compelled to make the same statement here. Because that’s how I roll 🙂

snipshot_e4pt84dd8w1.jpgEven though he claims to understand the difference between the theft of physical property (a criminal matter) and the infringement of copyright (a civil offence), Mr. Charkin no doubt feels that he accomplished something with his stunt, since he got a lot of attention for his “cause” — which is to protest the scanning of books as a part of Google’s Print project, which requires that publishers opt out if they don’t want their books scanned and indexed. And yet, as Larry Lessig points out in a typically insightful breakdown of the flaws in this argument, intellectual property is in no sense the same as physical property, which is why we treat them differently under the law.

All Mr. Charkin has really done is to conflate the two — physical theft and copyright infringement — which makes it even harder for people to understand the difference, just as people talking about “coming into my house and stealing my property because I left the door unlocked” does (as former ZDNet blogger Donna Bogatin does here).

That kind of comment is based on a logical fallacy, and it doesn’t help the debate any. Mr. Charkin might as well burn a couple of houses to the ground in order to protest what he sees as errors in the federal fire code. Ars Technica has some thoughts on the subject here.

Craigslist: blocking a leech, or a feature?

An interesting development at craigslist — in light of the debate that Tony “Deep Jive Interests” Hung and I have been having over the value of the site, and whether Craig and CEO Jim Buckmaster are making the most of the service — is a move by Craig to block a photo service called Listpic, which has apparently been piggybacking on craigslist by adding an easy way to seach images on the classified site. Some users have said that the service got them to use craigslist a lot more than they would have otherwise.

snipshot_e41jf568ktcc.jpgThere is a discussion of the blockage on craigslist itself (naturally), which includes a response from Craig himself (there’s another one here). Jim Buckmaster, the CEO — who was a keynote at mesh last week — also responded in an interview with Download Squad. He says that there were several issues with what Listpic was doing, including “mass harvesting of content for re-display,” and that each page from listpic “was consuming at least 20x more craigslist server resources than the same page would if it were efficiently implemented in-house.” He also says that he didn’t contact the site prior to the blockage because there was no way it could offer the same service and comply with craigslist’s terms of use, “so there wasn’t a lot to talk about, other than ‘please stop.’”

I’m probably not the only one that sees this as similar in many ways to the way that MySpace blocked Photobucket for embedding video — in part because of ad-related concerns (Listpic was carrying ads next to the content from craigslist). Photobucket saw a huge amount of its traffic disappear as a result of the move, and likely saw its market value decline as well (it was looking to be acquired at the time) and the company was ultimately bought by MySpace.

There are some harsh comments on the craigslist forum about the service (at least one criticizes Craig and the company for a “holier-than-thou” attitude), and it’s obvious that people really liked Listpic. In his comment, Craig says he likes the idea of image-based browsing, and Buckmaster says craigslist is looking at providing an image-based interface to its ads.

Will they find a way to work with Listpic or just create their own? Listpic founder Ryan Sit says that he wasn’t aware the bandwidth issue would be a big problem, and that he would be happy to host the images and work with craigslist on co-operating. But is leeching a site’s images and hosting the best way to start such a relationship? Probably not. There’s some good discussion in the comments at Consumerist.

iLike and Facebook joined at the hip

When Facebook — the social network everyone and their mom is on now — launched its new F8 “platform” initiative, one of the first to really take off was iLike. The music recommendation service, which also has a plugin for iTunes, is a way of sharing with others the music you like and of finding new music, much like Last.fm and Pandora do (the former uses what other people like to suggest new music, and the latter uses a pattern-matching algorithm).

ilike.jpgIn true Internet fashion, iLike has gone through a year’s worth of growth in a little over a week. As I wrote last week, the company went from having just 1,200 users to having more than 400,000 in a little over a day — which taxed its resources to the point where it doubled the number of servers it was running five times and still didn’t have enough capacity. Eventually, the company had to plead with Silicon Valley neighbours to provide extra servers. And where is it now? It has quintupled in size again, and has more than 2.2 million users.

That’s in a little over a week, remember — virtually the entire life-span of a company, from startup to (relatively) widespread usage, like one of those insects that is born, reproduces and dies in 24 hours. iLike hasn’t died, of course, but it certainly has had a wild ride. And according to an interview with the founder at the blog Online Fandom, the company is doing well and continuing to grow — and it has no problem with the fact that virtually its entire business at the moment (at least in terms of its user base) is predicated on being part of the Facebook platform.

In the Online Fandom interview, Ali Partovi — who co-founded the company with his identical twin brother — says that iLike’s functionality is “even better when deeply integrated in to the Facebook platform,” and that the company plans to continue to integrate the two. Unlike MySpace, which has blocked some widgets in the past (such as Photobucket) and caused problems for companies in the process, Partovi says that further integration with Facebook makes business sense for iLike.

“Fortunately, in contrast to the precariously-balanced Myspace widget ecosystem, making money on the FB platform is no harder than making money on our own site. In fact, the business model doesn’t change at all.”

Since iLike is a social application, which gets its strength from the widest possible sampling of users and their music, Partovi says that being part of a social platform makes perfect sense.

“People don’t wanna go somewhere separate just for music — they want music to enhance their existing online social life. Where would you rather see a notification that your buddies are going to see Snow Patrol: on a separate music website, or in the Facebook news feed that you’re already checking five times a day?”

Not a bad point. How the marriage works out down the road remains to be seen. And we can only hope that the Partovi brothers have read the pre-nup, which Sam Sethi describes at Vecosys.

Andrew Keen Q & A: still hates the Internet

As I wrote in an earlier blog post about Andrew Keen — author of Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture — we had a Q & A with the notorious Web 2.0 skeptic at globeandmail.com today, but despite my best efforts we didn’t get nearly as much back-and-forth as I was hoping. The full version is here (and, as is often the case, there’s some good responses in the comments) and James Robertson has some thoughts on the Q & A here.

Rachel Sklar, the lovely and talented Huffington Post blogger (and a star panelist at mesh) asked Keen:

“Who gets to be the arbiter of what is Good For Culture and what is Bad For Culture – some snobby on-high culture dude logrolling his buddy’s crappy book of “art” photos or the public, who votes with their eyeballs and their mouse clicks and their time?”

To which Keen responded:

here has always and will always be an arbiter of taste. Web 2.0’s idealists suggest otherwise — but behind their “democracy” is either an algorithm (easily gamed) or a new elite of generally anonymous tastemakers who are shaping wisdom of the crowd sites like reddit and digg. I like professional arbiters — reviewers, editors, agents, talent scouts.”

And I think Eric Berlin of Online Media Cultist and Blogcritics.org made a good point when he said:

“You’ve described “The Cult of the Amateur” as “not designed to be particularly fair or balanced.” What standard would you hold to the blogs that exist in your “digital forest of mediocrity”?

Is it possible in your view that some small percentage of the many millions of blogs add to the overall culture by some broad definition?”

To which Keen responded:

“Good question. I think that the percentage of good blogs is lower because the system has no filters. At least mainstream media has professional filters which, if not ideal, certainly gets rid of some of the dross and finds some jewels.

Professional filters don’t always work and tend toward somewhat conservative, populist and predictable taste. But I prefer to have my culture served up to me by professional tastemakers than an algorithm or by anonymous people on the Internet acting in the name of the virtuous crowd.”

In the end, that is the question — would you rather restrict yourself to the populist and predictable that gets served up by professional tastemakers, or do you enjoy a little more variety and spice, and are prepared to wade through a little dross to get to it? We have Keen’s answer.

And just between you and me, I have a feeling Mr. Keen is probably a lot less bombastic in his views than he makes out — extreme opinion gets lots of attention, as all good Internet trolls know. Kevin Marks puts Keen firmly in that camp, and so does Doc Searls.

Andrew Keen hates the Internet

Okay, maybe he doesn’t hate it — or at least not all of it. After all, the New Yorker and the BBC and the Oxford English Dictionary are available on the Internet, right? (or at least parts of them are). But it’s clear that Andrew Keen doesn’t like what the Web is doing to our Culture with a capital C, and that’s why he’s written a book called “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture.”

He joined us at globeandmail.com for a virtual Q&A session this afternoon, and I managed to pass along some questions from friends like Rachel Sklar and Eric Berlin. I wish I had had a bit more time to rustle up even more 🙂

snipshot_e4head0o5vs.jpgTo Keen, the current “Web 2.0” focus on interactivity and “user-generated content” (what a horrible term) — with blogs and wikis and forums and Digg-style voting and so on — is bordering on Marxism, as he wrote in a widely-circulated opinion piece last year. In other words, it celebrates the contribution of the individual regardless of whether that individual has any talent, and Keen believes that this is stamping out the finer things in our culture, which presumably include the opera, classic literature, the Philharmonic, etc., etc.

It’s easy to criticize Keen on any number of fronts. Lawrence Lessig takes Keen to task for criticizing the sloppiness in the “blogosphere” and then making exactly the same kinds of sloppy mistakes in his book. “Here’s a book,” Lessig writes, “that has passed through all the rigor of modern American publishing, yet which is perhaps as reliable as your average blog post: No doubt interesting, sometimes well written, lots of times ridiculously over the top — but also riddled with errors.”

Lessig concludes that the only possible answer is that Keen is “our generation’s greatest self-parodist.” He has also set up a Keen Reader wiki so that everyone can contribute their own errors from the book.

Assuming we are actually supposed to believe that Keen is serious, one thing he avoids in most of his arguments is that “user contributions” are a cornerstone of our democratic society. If the process of saying what you think of something (or someone) allegedly works for electing governments, why is it so absurd to apply those principles to the production of other things? No one is suggesting that works of art should be designed by committee — but the only people threatened by “user-generated content” or other Web 2.0-style features are those who have achieved their lofty status solely through being anointed by the cultural aristocracy.

Keen — who ran a dot-com that ultimately failed in the first bubble — says in the book that “Democratization, despite its lofty idealization, is undermining truth, souring civic discourse, and belittling expertise, experience, and talent.” I would argue the Internet helps to do the exact opposite — it helps to support truth (by making it easier to find errors), it improves discourse by broadening the available range of opinions and commentary (assuming you like that sort of thing, which Keen presumably doesn’t), and it helps to reveal expertise, experience and talent in places we may not have thought to look for it.

Yes, the Internet also produces a lot of sound and fury for no purpose — and there are a lot of idiots and pompous windbags that use the Web as a platform for misinformation or outright falsehood. In other words, the Internet is a reflection of humanity in all of its variety, both good and bad, and ultimately we find in it whatever we are looking for. Keen looks for the cheap and crass and useless, and he finds it. It’s too bad he isn’t helping us find the good stuff.

As Homer said: “Stupid like a fox”

In a recent post, my friend Tony Hung of Deep Jive Interests has taken an audio interview that David “Everything is Miscellanous” Weinberger did with Craig Newmark of craigslist.org and concluded that Craig was essentially just in the right place at the right time and lucked into what has become one of the most successful online communities around — one that could be worth as much as $500-million, depending on how you measure such things.

snipshot_e41jf568ktcc.jpgAs Tony describes it, “Craig Newmark is no visionary. He’s no guru. And he’s no soothsayer. He’s a guy who lucked into his business, and it continues to succeed in spite of his lackadaisical efforts at starting it and running it.” Because he was early, he gained a “first mover” advantage, Tony argues, and therefore developed network effects that now make the site virtually unassailable. But what really seems to tick Tony off — as it does most of Wall Street, I’m sure — is craigslist’s determination not to monetize itself:

“Not wanting to take advantage of an enormous opportunity to create an efficient business and maximize revenue — especially to do more Good … well, that doesn’t strike me as being wise. It just strikes me as being lazy.”

Lazy? Maybe. In fact, in his keynote with Mark Evans at the mesh conference last week — which we will hopefully have video of soon (and which Tony himself live-blogged ) — Buckmaster said laziness is actually one of the reasons why craigslist makes any money at all. He said implementing fees was one of the laziest ways to cut down on job-listing spam, instead of trying to come up with new and complex technological solutions. But it worked.

I think craigslist’s success is a lot more nuanced than Tony suggests. Yes, Craig was lucky with the timing — but I think that his and Jim Buckmaster’s laser-like focus on the user, without being distracted by the lure of AdSense and banners and pop-ups and so on, has a lot to do with why the site has become as successful as it has, and has stayed there.

If craigslist had gone the same route everyone else has, the uniqueness of the service would have been lost and it would have floundered and failed. You can’t separate one from the other.

YouTube is the farm team for stardom

(cross-posted from my Globe blog)

First it was “Brookers” — YouTube sensation Brooke Brodack, 20, who did skits in front of her web-cam and was signed to a TV development deal by Carson Daly Productions last year — and then came David Lehre, who is also developing comedy shorts and other material for MTV after his short films became popular on YouTube (Washington Post story here).

esmee.jpgNow Justin Timberlake has signed YouTube singing sensation Esmee Denters to his fledgling record label Tennman Records, and will reportedly have her as his opening act in several European cities (she is from the Netherlands). Another female singer who calls herself Ysabella Brave has also been signed to a recording contract after a rise to popularity that has seen her video clips viewed more than 3 million times on YouTube (I wrote about her here).

Sandi Thom, a British singer who played shows in her apartment and streamed them over the Internet, was promoted as a Web sensation last year, but it turned out that she had already signed a contract before she started getting popular for the impromptu Internet shows.

In addition to Brookers and Lehre, other YouTube stars who have been signed to deals include Lisa Nova (who signed with The Daily Reel) and Little Loca (who signed to do a reality TV show with the CW network). And NBC said recently that it has signed three Web comedy stars — including one from YouTube and one from MySpace — to work on its new DotComedy website.

The TV blog NewTeeVee, meanwhile, says that William Sledd, a former Gap employee whose YouTube videos are number four on the most-subscribed list, has signed a deal with Bravo to bring his gay-themed clips to the channel’s website (the Los Angeles Times had a story recently).

Looks like the Web is becoming the farm team.

Web 2.0 — mirage, distraction or gimmick?

Plenty of people have taken a run at the whole Web 2.0 thing — the question of whether the term is a load of bollocks, a useful concept or just marketing hype — but if anyone should have some perspective on it, it’s Marc Andreesen. After all, he’s the guy who gave us the first browser when he was still a university student (I can still remember when I first used Mosaic), and then went on to form Netscape, arguably the first Web company.

snipshot_e41ktrokekm9.jpgThe only other guy who might have even more perspective on the whole Web 2.0 mess is Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the Web in the first place, and who has made his thoughts known in a couple of different places, including a podcast with IBM (transcript here) — and in an interview with yours truly from the W3 symposium in Banff recently. In effect, Tim (he says that anyone who uses the Sir has to buy a round of drinks) and Marc both agree that what we call Web 2.0 is really just the Web as it was meant to be. In other words, all of that interactivity and so on is just the way things were supposed to work in the first place. It’s just easier now.

As Marc points out, it’s telling that even Tim O’Reilly — the guy who came up with the term in the first place, in order to sell the idea of a conference on the topic (which he famously trademarked, causing a minor blog storm) — has a lot of trouble defining exactly what Web 2.0 means. Dave “Mc500 Hats” McClure takes his own run at doing it in a comment on Andreesen’s blog, but doesn’t really fare much better (although it’s shorter).

Does Web 2.0 refer to tools like Ajax? Is it just a term that means interactivity? Is it an approach to design? Does it mean community? Is it a load of bollocks, a useful concept, or marketing hype? That answer to all of those questions — and more — is “Yes.” Web 2.0 means everything, and nothing.

Yahoo says search is over — it hopes

My friend Tony Hung from Deep Jive Interests — who was a one-man live-blogging machine at our recent mesh conference, as well as being on a panel (about the future of journalism, coincidentally enough) — has a great post about Yahoo’s sudden realization that search isn’t all that important any more. If those comments sound like sour grapes to you, you’re not the only one.

Tony’s point is that Yahoo is talking about how “personalization” is the future, rather than pure search, and to him (and me) that sounds a lot like what social networks such as Facebook do. So does Yahoo wish they had coughed up the $1-billion or whatever it was to buy Facebook when they had the chance? I expect they do. Imagine how thrilled they will be when Google does a deal to drive the search inside Facebook (not that I know anything, but I could see it happening at some point).

Go read Tony’s whole post. Thought-provoking.