Webstock: Participants are the Producers. Deal with it. But how?

I went to Webstock 2008 for inspiration. I came away overflowing with the buzz, and the insights into how stuff works and what’s happening. There is so much to take in at the event, that making sense of it barely begins before walking out the door. But the most inspiring impact of Webstock for me, is the questions that remain unanswered. One week on, here are my reflections on these questions, and how they are propelling me forward.

Developers, designers and web entrepreneurs think that we are changing the web. We go to events like Webstock to get better at it. In our zeal, we can miss what’s really happening. The web is changing us. In fact, it’s changing everything. It is turning the process of production and consumption that we know on its head. It’s providing consumers globally the means to define the way the world is, to decide what happens, what is made, and what truth is.

At Webstock, people like Amy Hoy, Kathy Sierra and Jason Santa Maria showed how to manipulate people to do what we want on the web. But Liz Danzico cautioned that whatever we do, people will mess with it, and Tom Coates showed that our product is not our website but our data. We have no choice but to encourage users to share their data with us, and allow others to use and manipulate that data in any way they want. But how do we do that without being evil?

We have to follow research, gather data and make rational choices. But we also have to look outside the limits of our thinking, to embrace change and uncertainty. We don’t know whether we will fall by the wayside, or fall to the dark side. We don’t know whether putting more control in the hands of users will lead to creative diversity and democracy, or to tribalism and polarisation.

We are at the very beginning of this. All we know is that this web, this world, is about people. And that being in it requires us to be ourselves; to say and do less, and to observe and listen more. To open ourselves to relationships with others, perhaps to everyone, and to be spontaneous and creative as we find a way forward into the unknown.

Participants Used to be the Producers

We are entering the third era in the history of human participation in society. The process of production and consumption is being inverted. Instead of centralised production and mass consumption, we are entering an era of participant production. This is not not the first era of participant production that we’ve had. In fact humans have more history of participant production than we do of mass consumption. It’s just that this time, it’s scalable, potentially to all humans.

It is More Scalable to Centralise

The first participant production era ended at about the time we invented cave painting. Prior to that, communication was extremely expensive and difficult to scale. As the opening scene from 2001 A Space Odyssey shows, without words or other symbols, you have to show people stuff for them to find out about it. With words, you can have an oral tradition. This works really well in small groups, where everyone contributes as much as they consume. It works in parallel with subsistence material production, where there is very little specialisation. It relies on frameworks that enable messages to be communicated through generations through repeated hearing and telling of stories using quite regular forms. Because this system is distributed, it scales well to large numbers of people over space and time, but it does not lend itself to tactical organisation of large numbers of people.

Specialisation of production requires scale in human organisations. To scale human organisations, you need people who know what to do. When communication is expensive, the cheapest way to do that is to make all the decisions centrally, and just tell everyone else what to do. This requires some kind of one to many communication medium that minimises loss and distortion. You need some kind of persistent symbol, like a cave painting. Cave paintings can last for millennia and reach lots of people, but they’re not cheap. The problem is not knowing how to draw, or getting the materials, it’s getting access to a cave. There simply aren’t that many of them. To get your ‘tag’ on a cave wall, you have to fight off everyone else. Cave painting is not about prowess in killing animals, it’s about prowess in killing humans.

Technology Lowers the Cost of Communication

With a mass communication medium like cave paintings, you can start to scale human organisations to larger sizes, despite the high cost of communication. You still use the legacy media, of course. The favoured communication medium of most large empires before the current millennium was the sword. As technology lowered the cost of communication, the first to acquire access to it were the elite. You had to be elite to get access to it, and we used it to retain our elite position. Literacy, the printing press, broadcast media. This paralleled the centralisation of production. The few control the means of production, and communication, and the many passively consume. The problem arises when you need tiers of people to be well-informed. When the printing press and mass literacy start to lower the cost of education and information for people outside the centre, you start to be able to have larger organisations, and even to have democratic political systems.

Cheap Communication Enables Participants to Produce Again

The more technology you have, the more technology you get. And all technology is information technology. But the lower the cost of communication, the more autonomous people become. This is good news for scaling large organisations, especially in dynamic environments. The problem is just too hard for people at the centre to solve, so it gets pushed out to the periphery, where people are well informed enough to make the best decisions in particular domains. Then production crosses the boundary of the organisation and you have participant production.

Of course, none of this is news. ClueTrain, Thomas Malone and innumerable others have been talking about this for years. What was new at Webstock was glimpses into the pace and processes of it playing out. If you are thinking about “user generated content”, you are missing the point. The traditional production model is being turned on its head. The web is putting the power of production into the hands of every participant. This era of we, the few, creating sites that are consumed by the many, will be fleeting at best.

Mistaking the Web for a Mass Medium

In Web 1.0, the web was built out in the image of broadcast media. We all had the opportunity to extend the reach of our brand. Content was king and with it, we lured the unsuspecting. Then we got too tired to create all the content that we needed to keep up with the content that people generated themselves. We assumed the guise of a service, enabling people to connect with each other by sharing their data.

Mass exploitation hasn’t stopped yet, of course. At Webstock we learned about some insidious techniques that are used to lure users into our sites. (Insultingly, many of them are derived from the design of malls. Or are we the insulters?) Using combinations of visual design, information architecture, graphic resonance, multi-path search and navigation, by exploiting unconscious functioning of the human brain in the design of visual and textual cue, and the conscious adoption of a personality, a voice, we lure users to visit, to stay, to buy, to share personal data and content, even login information for other sites.

Game Over for Privacy Online

Read almost any terms of use, and you’ll see that you sign over control of your data. With a service like Gmail, it is not only the users whose data becomes available to the service provider, but anyone who they email or who emails them. Flickr now (optionally) supports geotagging. Legions of young and old adults use social networking sites, mostly without asking why it is free. Photo-sharing and social networking sites allow people to associate photos with you, without your consent. Nigel Parker gave an excellent 5 minute presentation about this at Webstock.

Your Product is Your Data!

You take two dull lumps of data and put them together and you make something interesting. Both Nat Torkington and Tom Coates made this point. Chicago Crime is the poster child for this, but any mashup is an example. Tom Coates says that if you run a website (and there’s actually no such thing as a website, by the way: they are all applications), the web interface is not your product. The data is. 90% of Twitter’s traffic is via their API. You will live or die by accumulating users’ data, letting them use it in useful ways, and getting others using the data, in diverse ways. The more this happens, the more secure your future will be on the web.

OpenID: There is Hope for Public Space Online

So this means that we, at Webstock, are both those who are losing control of our identity online, and those who are seizing control of identity information from others? Actually, I think people’s lax attitude to the privacy of their data is a temporary phenomenon. Simon Willison gave an urgent and compelling presentation about how OpenID provides a distributed system where each of us can choose just who to trust with our personal information, and how much to share with anyone we don’t trust. It is a significant enabler of something like public space online.

Frameworks Not Artefacts

Liz Danzico pointed out that whatever you create, whether physical or virtual, however participative your design process, you only ever find out how people use something when you launch. That process is iterative, as people respond to how others are already using it, and become involved in dynamic, self-conscious creation process. She likens traditional design processes to classical music, and proposes designing just frameworks, that allow a co-adaptive design process with users. Could we, like modal jazz artists Coltrane and Davis, be good facilitators of improvisation, by making great frameworks, rather than glittering artefacts?

Citizen Justice

Russell Brown notes how, for example in the Augustine Borrell case, the media are racing the cops to the story. Could things could go horribly wrong? But does he consider the possibility that the people ourselves are gaining the means to beat both the police and the media to the story? Of course we know how horribly wrong that could go, too. In the first instance, if you give people the tools to mess with stuff, they make mess. Witness MySpace and Piczo. Over time, however, some lovely stuff floats to the top. And we are just at the very beginning of learning how to create things that self -organise and scale. No example is as good as the Wikipedia.

Design for Participation

Another example of a framework-based process is WordPress. WordPress supports four basic tasks: write a post, change a post, change the design and manage comments. Within those limits, an ecosystem of themes, plugins, and a variety of users has spawned. The existence of mashups themselves is an example. If you don’t provide the functionality for people to remix your data, then people will figure it out for themselves. Even outside the web, in social and organisational change, often the means is a simple infectious idea (like the hipster PDA, or no pants day) that people implement and adapt themselves. Imagine a web where it is all like that. Where everyone is creating as fast as consuming? Where websites, art, music, movies, news, criminal investigations, surveillance, science, environmental management, and things we can’t imagine yet, are produced by decentralised clusters of people and systems that continuously form, decay and reform? Where trust, truth and authenticity are negotiated. Where everything changes in a moment. This is the Web we are participating in now.

Mike Brown closed Webstock with a heart-felt reiteration of the Maori epithet: He Tangata, He Tangata, He Tangata ([asked what matters, I answer] it is people, it is people, it is people). He also shared a quote from Sir Edmund Hillary (can anyone tell me what it actually was?) about the importance of relationships, and relational abilities in the 21st century.

Knowing these things, I am glad that I am not a geek, not a designer, and not even a natural entrepreneur but that my strengths are in dealing with people, groups, communities and organisations. I am glad that, with GroupServer and OnlineGroups.Net, we have chosen to focus on collaboration in groups and communities. I am glad that our privacy policy is to let users control their own data. I am glad that we give away the code to our software. The questions remain however, about how we are going to attract millions of people, give them something structured enough to be useful, and loose enough to mutate into thousands of different forms. How are we going to stay true to our values of humanity and collaboration, or could these be our greatest asset? These are the questions and challenges that motivate me to be doing this. At Webstock I got to be in a large room full of people, all facing, and feeling the same challenges. We were enthralled and entertained by the speakers, we ate, we drank, talked and laughed, we grooved to Twinset, the Ukulele Orchestra and Craftstock, we flaunted our bags and teeshirts, and felt proud to be part of a profoundly inspiring web event, that is right here in Aotearoa.

4 Responses to “Webstock: Participants are the Producers. Deal with it. But how?”

  1. jonathan

    Great write-up Dan.

    I don’t know exactly what Mike quoted regarding Edmund Hillary, but it was something along the lines of ” I think most of our major challenges are not going to be in the physical field at all. I think they’re going to be in the field of human relations, of getting on with each other, of contributing. People accepting that they have to contribute something, their thoughts, their ideas, maybe even their money, towards producing a world society that is perhaps a little bit more honest and reasonable than it is now.” See http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/hil0int-6

  2. Mike

    Yes, that’s exactly the quote. I found it in the paper in one of the write-ups a couple days after he died and cut it out.

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