Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Digerati Chronicles - part 1

My recent post on Andrew Keen and his dire warnings about the Web 2.0 movement's radical agenda have prompted me to delve a little more deeply into this subculture to get a better understanding of its values and personalities, starting with Mr Keen himself. In a recent post on his blog The Great Seduction, he compares himself to Nick Carroway, the narrator of F Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby:

SORTA NICK CARROWAYISM

I just got a hilarious note from Chris Coulter in reaction to the Weekly Standard piece that is definitely worth (re)broadcasting:

Wow, great piece...
Odd, in that the San Fran anti-utopians, which are mainly centered around Andrew Orlowski and 'The Castle' hive zone -- I guess I just must have missed you, if in that circle. And another one of those Ex-Patty Redcoats to boot; West Coast Brit Invasion, everywhere I turn it's all these eternal Lobsterbacks. ;)
Irony abounds, eh?
Which might be where I think you are coming from, cashed-out enough,to jab, but yet not hard enough to get disinvited from the parties. Sorta Nick Carrisms, as he plays nice to get Speaker Circuit gigs and sucks up to Dave Winer and other Ego-Fed Utopians. Or Nick Dentonisms,snarky enough to be ribbing, but cotton-candy enough to be toast of town. And then Mercury News and offshot Gillmorisms,going cheerleading. With Levy, Mossberg, Markoff writing one-off Mediabistroistic high-sugar suck-up feature-pieces, being invited to all the swanky billionaire parties. And JCD saying blogging is a waste of time, and then doing one and proving it.
Hence...
No one is covering the Valley as it SHOULD be covered, as one big cesspool of FRAUD and VAPORWARE. No one.Well rant over. Hi. ;)


Brilliant. I couldn't have described myself better. I've only got one thing to add. I'm not sorta Nick Carrism -- although I am a big fan of Nick Carr's work. Instead, I'm sorta Nick Carrowayism. It was Nick Carroway, of course, in F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel Great Gatsby, simple innocent Nick, thenarrative voice of the book, who covered the Twenties and West Egg as it SHOULD be covered.

And Silicon Valley is just another West Egg eighty years on. And I'm that simple innocent Nick Carroway here to whip up an omelette out of all the fraud and the vaporware.


And this from a man who would accuse his fellow bloggers of narcissism! Leaving aside Keen's inflated sense of self-importance for the moment, is there any truth to what he says about the culture of "fraud and vaporware" in Silicon Valley? In my last post I deconstructed Keen's warning about the deleterious effects of Web technology on the using public. In this and following posts I'd like to explore the personalities of this movement, and see if any of Keen's words ring true.

In his Weekly Standard article "Web 2.0" Keen fingers the major figures of the movement:

Just as Marx seduced a generation of European idealists with his fantasy of self-realization in a communist utopia, so the Web 2.0 cult of creative self-realization has seduced everyone in Silicon Valley. The movement bridges counter-cultural radicals of the '60s such as Steve Jobs with the contemporary geek culture of Google's Larry Page. Between the book-ends of Jobs and Page lies the rest of Silicon Valley including radical communitarians like Craig Newmark (of Craigslist.com), intellectual property communists such as Stanford Law Professor Larry Lessig, economic cornucopians like Wired magazine editor Chris "Long Tail" Anderson, and new media moguls Tim O'Reilly and John Batelle.


I'll start with Craig Newmark, the creator of Craigslist.com. Craigslist started out as a shared e-mail list that Newmark started in 1994 to network with fellow computer nerds in the San Francisco Bay area. It has grown into a business earning over $20 million a year, and runs online communities for around 200 cities around the globe. I'll leave it to the reader as to whether this qualifies as radical communitarianism, more likely it is just a successful example of one of the kinds of applications that the internet excels at. But what is Newmark's social agenda, if any, for Craigslist?

This interview with Newmark from August 2004 gives some clues:

Q: Your site is one of the few that remains true to some of the earliest ideals of the Internet. It's fairly altruistic and basically non-commercial in nature. How have you been able to keep Craigslist a fairly organic community and why?

A: First, I don't feel like we are altruistic or anything like that. Basically, it's a matter of giving people a break. Just the same, we had to become a serious business. That became clear in early 1999. We were trying to do it with volunteers, and things were falling apart. Falling apart is bad. At that point, I started making a real company out of it, figuring that we would be charging for job postings and that would help us out.

That said, there is nothing pious or anti-commercial about us. The decision to make it a business was based on values I've been somewhat facetiously calling nerd values. The disease of my people -- the nerds -- is that we are very literal, which is a real pain in the butt, frankly. But again, nerd values are simple. It's good to make a good living. It's good to do well for your staff.

I feel that one of the best things a person can do for another is to create a job. So you do OK commercially, and then you try to make a difference of some sort. We're still looking for new and other ways of doing that.


Obviously Newmark carries no water for Marx in the way he envisions his business. Community values and commercial values can coexist. It seems that Newmark discovered the profit motive almost by accident, as a practical necessity to make his community website work and grow rather than as a primary goal. And maybe this is what rubs Keen the wrong way. Most urban lefties like Newmark are comfortably affluent by virtue of being smart, talented and well educated. Nerds like Newmark can make a good living in the American information economy without trying very hard by just indulging their passion for technology and networking with like minded nerds. It is easy to overlook the necessity of the profit motive for such people. Yet Newmark understands it as a necessity for acheiving his social goals, if not for his own consumption. It's good to make a good living. These aren't the words of a Marxist.

But further into the interview Newmark expresses the sort of vague, mushy 60's platitudes that suggests the web 2.0 movement is still running on the fumes of hippie nostalgia:

Q: Your site has enjoyed immense popularity compared with very commercial efforts to create the same sort of online community. What does that tell you about the service you are providing, and what it is that people are looking for?

A: I guess if one is building a community kind of site, whatever that means, people are really good at telling whether you're doing so through an honest intent of connecting with the community, of trying to connect with other people, or whether you're just trying to make a lot of money right away. The real core here is that we've kind of lost our sense of neighborhood or community. In our culture, I think we crave that. That's why a lot of sitcoms have been popular like "Seinfeld," "Northern Exposure" or "MASH" That's a big deal. Beyond that, a lot of the people who try that don't have persistence. I'm not very patient, but I'm pretty darned persistent.
Q: Google is a company whose founders express a similar kind of idealism about the medium that you do. They've made a very different choice from you, and they are about to become a public company. Do you think that they can succeed, or do you think the pressures of being a public company are such that it can't be done?

[...]

Q: What is the ownership or structure? In other words, who owns the company?

A: First, we don't think of ourselves as being owned. We're like a commons in the sense that we're providing a public service. Now business realities dictate that we have to be a company because that's the only way that you get a lot of legal protection. So we are incorporated. So there are shareholders, and of course shareholders are independent, but we just don't think about that much because we don't think of ourselves as a company in that sense.

[...]

Q: Google is a company whose founders express a similar kind of idealism about the medium that you do. They've made a very different choice from you, and they are about to become a public company. Do you think that they can succeed, or do you think the pressures of being a public company are such that it can't be done?

A: When it comes to Google, with them maintaining their moral compass, they seem to be putting a lot of energy into it. They've done a lot of thinking about ensuring that the venture capitalists really can't control things. That's a good lesson for everyone. So they've made a choice, and it's a choice consistent with their values, and I like their values. So, again, I like the choices that the folks at EBay have made. Different choices there, but they still provide a really valuable service to people. I like their moral compass as well.


Nowhere does Newmark mention any specifics about his moral compass or what he admires about the moral compass of Google. It seems that much of the moralizing is about striking a pose, or making a statement. Newmark seems to be saying that it's okay to make money as long as your real intent isn't to make money. And so we get Google and their corporate slogan "don't be evil", which is about as vague as it gets. It is a morality of aesthetics more than anything else. It is a morality of tastes and social differentiation, much as in the way that heirs of old money differentiate themselves from the crass, grasping new money crowd.

4 Comments:

Blogger Brit said...

Odd, in that the San Fran anti-utopians, which are mainly centered around Andrew Orlowski and 'The Castle' hive zone -- I guess I just must have missed you, if in that circle. And another one of those Ex-Patty Redcoats to boot; West Coast Brit Invasion, everywhere I turn it's all these eternal Lobsterbacks. ;)
Irony abounds, eh?


What language is this?

February 21, 2006 8:47 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Brit,
I asked the same question. Apparently it is insider-speak. If you don't understand the references or the allusions, then you aren't one of the in crowd that Keen belongs to. It's a Silicon Valley millionaire thing.

February 21, 2006 10:17 AM  
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