This is a rough, raw draft. It is certain to change substantially. It’s choppy and poorly organized. Read it at your own risk, and understanding that it’s just a frigging draft, ok? Thanks.
NOTES: The title will change. All but the first-level subheadings will go away.
Don’t worry about the typos, etc. We have bigger mistakes to fry.
© 2001, David Weinberger
A New Public Place
Started: Dec. 9, 2000
Latest: January 11, 2001
NOTES TO ME:
Point: Web is a new public space and is calling forth a new public and a new self
What it’s about: The Web is a new type of public space. The real world public is a lowest-common denominator group in which we as individuals are faceless. (This is the “paradox of the public”: as we aggregate individuals, we lose our individuality.) The Web public is different in that we retain our face.
For example, famous people in the real world are known by many people who don’t know them; those who make you famous are a faceless mass. On the Web, all fame is local; you feel attached to the famous people, and you don’t know of them so much as know them through their participation on the Web.
Groups in general on the Web are, in fact, held together by participation rather than by membership. Web groups consist of “face-ful” people exercising their voices. If you remove membership as what makes a group a group, you end up with much more fluid groups (small pieces loosely joined).
Indeed, something deeper is going on. In the real world, we believe (falsely) that what holds us together as a public is the geography we inhabit. On the Web, there is no geography. Rather, it is a shared world. The public space of the Web (i.e., the Web) exists because we share interests and participate face-fully; there’s not possibility of thinking that it’s mere geography that holds us together.
This really isn’t much different from the truth about the real world public: it too exists because we live in a shared world, not because of geography. Will living on the Web help make it clearer that our commitment to one another is due to our participation in a shared world of interests and values, not because we’re standing next to one another on the same rock? I don’t know.
It’s the type of fall day in Boston that people pay money to experience. I’m walking with my friend and intermittent colleague Diane. We’re talking about a business project we’re thinking of starting and about Diane’s health; she was in the hospital a few weeks ago because her spinal fluid was mysteriously elevated. She’s feeling much better now, although the doctors are still unclear why it happened. We’re on Arlington Street which on one side faces hotels and shops and on the other is the edge of the Boston Garden. Around us businesspeople walking to lunch, shoppers toting bags from the expensive stores nearby, and tourists of all sorts, consulting maps and posing one another for photos. We’re keeping our voices down because we don’t want anyone to hear us discussing either of our two topics. A man dressed in layers of worn, warm clothing is standing at the entrance to the park handing out some type of flyer. I brusquely shake my head; Diane takes one and smiles. Just ahead of us a young couple with a map and a camera look at the pamphlet in disgust for it’s advertising some sort of sex service. As we’re entering the park, Diane’s cell phone rings. She waves me aside and turns to face the fence as the park swirls on past her. It’s a doctor in New York she’s been trying to reach. She drops her voice and talks with him for about five minutes, concluding that she will schedule an appointment to see him when she goes back to her apartment where she can consult her calendar. I tuck the magazine I’d been reading back under my arm and ask her how the call went. As we walk through the park, we are turned to one another. We arrive at the office building I’m going to. We say goodbye and I enter the elevator, face forward, body pulled in as all conversation stops and we ascend back into the world of work.
In these few minutes, Diane and I have negotiated a complex stream of public and private spaces with the skill of a plover tracing the outline of a wave. We behaved differently depending on where we were and who was around us. The tourists passing by would have drawn quite different conclusions about us, thinking we were business colleagues at one moment and sympathetic friends at another. Our body posture and presentation underwent rapid changes as we moved from being inviting, hostile, self-protective and oblivious. Each of the miniature, transient realms we traversed had its own politics with its own set of rights and responsibilities, violated by the pamphleteer but scrupulously observed by my silent elevator companions. We did all this without even thinking about it because the public is the ever-present context for our lives together.
There are two broad applications of the word “public.” Sometimes it refers to the world: streets are public but apartments are private; books in the municipal library are public but books in the law library of Dewey, Cheatum and Howe are private. Sometimes “public” refers to our selves: publicly I’m gregarious but privately I’m quite shy. These two senses of “public” are, of course, related, but more messily than we might think. At the core of each is the granting and withholding of permission: what makes the public world public is that we have permission to inhabit it, and what makes my public self public is that I have given permission to let others know about it. Beyond that, the idea of the public is an inchoate mélange of assumptions, overlapping concepts, and vaguely understood but fiercely asserted rights.
The Web is mounting a serious challenge to our intricate configuration of public and private worlds and selves. The Web is a new public space that is, for the first time since broadcasting came along, creating a new type of public and a new type of public self. Because the Web world is inextricable from the real world, our real world dance of public and private is also on the verge of being transformed.
When we think of public places we perhaps think of areas intended to bring together – but not quite introduce – people who don’t know one another. Parks are public. Streets are public. National forests “belong to the public” but feel a bit less like a “public space” because they work best if they keep people out of view of one another. Mars is, I suppose, technically a public place at this point, but since people can’t get there yet, it’s a particularly poor example. Why? Because the public world is the world considered as that which we co-occupy. The wilderness is co-owned but, by definition, is unoccupied. Mars isn’t owned or occupied.
Because we co-occupy this space, the public world is the same for everyone. We can agree to meet under the clock at Grand Central Station because the clock is there for all of us. What I see but isn’t visible to all is an hallucination.
But we do more than simply co-occupy public space. Rather, we live in it together. We go about our tasks, we interact with others, we share the public resources, we build lives together. But who is this we? When I refer to myself as a “member of the public,” I’m stripping away all my differences and am thinking about what I’m due simply because I am a co-occupant like everyone else. The antiquated phrase “Every Man” has the right ring to it, at least for 49% of the population. So let’s modernize it to “Every One.” Every One has an equal right to the public world. That’s what makes the public world public. And that’s why parks have such a special role in modern communities. Part of the fun of being in a park on a summer day is watching how Every One else disports; without other people, a park becomes just an empty field. That’s why it’s depressing that malls are taking over the role of parks, for malls generally sell social acceptance through purchased uniformity while parks manifest diversity. And this is why spending a day in a park in Beijing can be thrilling for a Westerner. There, in the splendor built on the backs of their ancestors, Chinese parents twirl their children and elderly Chinese play mahjong and young couples court on ground made heavy by history; the making public of the park was a revolutionary act that also created a new public.
But of course, the foreignness of the Beijing example reminds us that “We the People” are also “We, not Them.” Because public space is still space, it’s always situated within a particular geography. Thus, each public space has local residents who created it and through taxes maintain it. It is our public space, and no matter how generous we are about inviting strangers in, they are there by our sufferance. The space itself has some local character – compare your local town’s sidewalks with the Champs-Elysées. Our public spaces are fundamentally ours and if they forget that we will become resentful about what those damn foreigners and tourists are doing to our city.
Public streets and sidewalks stitch together private buildings. This play of private and public gives our cities and towns most of their value. It is only because private enterprises are located in the midst of public spaces that we can take advantage of the goods and services we need to live out a modern life. But this play is quite complex and dynamic beyond anything that could be captured on a map. As we walk down the public street, we may be having a private conversation, carrying with us a zone of privacy that others are prevented from violating by custom if not by law. We may be interrupted by someone working for a private company trying to push a pamphlet on us. We probably are carrying with us a wallet full of private information as well as business cards containing public information to be selectively disclosed. The rules around these various private and public zones and sub-zones are extraordinarily well understood if rarely articulated. There’s no need to articulate them, for we all already have them bred in our bones.
Yet all this mix of private and public spaces still occurs within an overall public space. Part of our foundational myth is that the public world comes first. The public world embraces the private spaces. Private spaces are carved out of this primal publicness. This idea has mythic status precisely because it seems so obvious and incontrovertible, but it wasn’t always assumed: in feudal times, the land was the King’s to bestow for public use, depending on his whim.
Today, too, occasionally we go the other way and carve a public space out of a private one. For example, Boston is in the midst of a long argument about replacing the Fenway ballpark, a beloved institution that – according to some – is so dilapidated that it can only be remodeled with 4,000 sticks of dynamite. The proposed new stadium would require razing some residential blocks. The most important transformation of those apartment buildings will not be their removal but the conversion of the land from private to public. If that were not possible, leveling them would simply be an act of terrorism.
In converting the buildings, we are changing the permissions: the private owners no longer have the right to exclude people from the site, even people with wrecking balls. Indeed, fundamentally the public world is about permission. While the definition of private space may involve laws and contracts, the operant definition is easy: if it’s a private space, you can keep me out. Public spaces are those for which we don’t need permission, just as a public telephone is one we can use without asking anyone else first.
This is what gives public spaces their special character. The lack of permission isn’t merely a negative attribute. It can be a palpable sense of liberation. After working in a private space thick with the machinations of people trying to better themselves, where we are constantly confronted with having to get OKs and make deals, we step outside and inhale the fresh air. Here we need no permission to do what everyone can do. Here we are the same as Every One. Here we can see that the world is bigger than we thought and that it contains many lives and many aspirations. The public world is, frankly, a relief.
Let’s sum up. The public world is a social space, shared with others. It is the same for all of us because it is a part of the real-world geography, but it’s distinguished by the fact that we all have permission to use it. Because the permission is equal, we participate in it as “Every One.” Yet, public spaces are locally owned, and derive much of their value from the fact that they give easy access to private spaces.
You don’t suppose the Web changes any of this, do you?
Imagine a well-known philanthropist goes before a city council meeting and announces that she’s donating new space to the public. An appreciative murmur goes through the crowd. How big is this space? Quite substantial to begin with, and it’s going to get larger and larger. In fact, she commits to growing the space indefinitely to accommodate all possible users. The crowd buzzes with questions. She must own some huge parcel of land that she’s willing to whittle away over time. Where is this new public space going to be? In the middle of town? If so, then what’ll happen to the downtown businesses as the public space grows? Isn’t this going to displace homes? The philanthropist tries to quiet the crowd. Although the space can be grown infinitely, nothing will be displaced. As to where the plot is situated, well, that’s not quite the right question. Instead, ask how people will get there. The answer is puzzling: They’ll be able to get there whenever they want, wherever they are, just by opening a metaphorical door. No travel required. The crowd settles back for clearly our philanthropist has entered the realm of science fiction. With an amused look on his face, the mayor asks just what activities the philanthropist sees occurring in this new “public space.” “Within a decade, a significant portion of our social lives will be spent there,” she says without hesitation.
Clearly, this is a new type of public space and that’s a big deal. For example, the opening of the American West to white settlers was a foundational event for the United States precisely because a sudden march through “unowned” territory can only occur rarely on a well-populated globe. The parallel between the Web and the American West can be taken a step further: the creation of this new public space where before there was wilderness created a new type of public: dispersed, independent, self-reliant, anarchic to a degree. The adjectives may be different (although they are, in fact, surprisingly similar), but the point remains that having a new type of public space creates a new type of public.
The Web public space is, of course, radically different from existing public space. There are the obvious differences that spring from the fact that the Web’s not a physical space: it is unbounded and is available to us independent of where we are. But, it’s more interestingly different in the way in which it is public. Its sense of localness is different, and, most important, the Web is a more purely public place than the real world.
On the Web, we’re faced with a collection of individual sites without any natural configuration of nearness. Whatever control there is comes from the owner of the particular site; we are visitors at a site owned by someone else. Once you get past the level of the individual site, it’s difficult to find anything akin to a locality. In the real world, it would be as if Macy’s had a particular character and so did the Gimbel’s next door, but there is no discernible, consistent character to the block they occupy or to the city they’re in. The exceptions are the Web portals or malls. As they balloon by acquiring other sites, they frequently change the layout and design of those sites to match that of their new owners. For example, as Amazon has added music, tools and other sundries, the pages look like Amazon pages. Likewise, Yahoo’s stores look basically like Yahoo’s familiar main pages. Lycos, on the other hand, has not placed its graphic imprimatur on all of its many acquisitions, so when you use, say, www.hotbot.com you don’t feel like you’re still in a Lycos property. In short, branding is the analog to localness on the Web. And branding only reaches to the edge of the site.
(There are two other sense of localness but they’re irrelevant to our discussion here. One has to do with the cultural differences among sites from the United States, Italy, Brazil, etc. The other talks about the way local communities use the Web to organize themselves. Neither of these senses creates a perceived virtual locale.)
But the fundamental difference goes deeper. A real-world public space is a bounded part of the outdoors. Its “stuff” is matter – soil, bricks, metal, etc. Its defining characteristic is that we have permission to be there. The Web public space isn’t part of an outdoors because there is no outdoors of the Web. Its “stuff” is the human voice talking to other humans; Web space makes itself out of humans expressing themselves. Its defining characteristic isn’t that we have permission – we take that for granted – but that we’ve chosen to post something, to say something. Together, these facts mean the Web is deeply, fundamentally and even ontologically public: it consists of people expressing themselves.
Everything on the Web is the result of some type of publishing process. Web designers have met and considered which fonts to use, what to label the buttons, and whether the yellow in the left-hand column is too dark. Even the contributions of individuals, in the form of home pages, email and postings to discussion boards, have been constructed for others to read. While we can imagine a real-world hut hidden and unseen in the public world, the equivalent case on the Web positions the site as off the Web entirely. By posting a site, you are enabling others to find it. You may make it hard or easy to find (for example, by submitting it to search engines for indexing), but on the Web, to be is to be seen.
Certainly there are sites that limit access. The New York Times’ Web site requires you to register (for free) before letting you get past the headlines. The Wall Street Journal charges a subscription fee. Porn sites often charge a fee and require proof of age. In each of these cases, however, the site is controlling to whom it makes its pages public, not taking their pages out of the public sphere.
Similarly, when you enter “whisper” mode in a chat room so that now only one person can see what you’re typing, you have drastically limited the size of the public, but you are still exposing something about yourself to someone else. Even in this limiting case, the Web consists of public, published expression.
In this sense, however, a corporate intranet available only to employees probably shouldn’t be considered part of the Web even though it uses Web tools and the Internet infrastructure. But that’s really just a question of how we want to define the World Wide Web. One could just as well maintain that an intranet also exists to serve a public, albeit a limited and closed public.
This question remains squishy precisely because the Web is such a supple, nuanced public, much like the real world public. Consider something as straightforward as email. Usually, an email message is a point-to-point private communication and by itself would be no more public than getting a fax. But email enters the public realm with the “cc:” field that sits there so blank and tempting. Now a communication meant primarily for one person is being shown to others to whom, by definition, the message is not directly relevant. My friend Tim every few days sends around jokes found on the Web. He has a consistent set of friends to whom he sends these messages, and, as a convenience created a mail alias that enables him to type in a single phrase – “jokelist” – that his email software recognizes as a code name for the long list of intended recipients. This alias is a strange type of public. At times, one of the recipients has responded to one of Tim’s mailings with her own joke or witty reply; we now get to know one another. At some point Tim might decide to publish a ‘zine which is architecturally identical to a mail alias but that Tim and his readership perceives as being more regular, more committed and longer than a mere mail alias for jokes. Now Tim’s email would begin to take on some of the attributes of a magazine: we would subscribe or unsubscribe and expect people who don’t know Tim personally to end up on his list. Finally, the recipients of Tim’s joke mail might find themselves engaged in a lot of back and forth so that we’re sending many more messages to one another than we’re receiving from Tim. Now we have a mailing list that is more like a conversation than like a published magazine, and again the nature of the group as public will change: you can enroll but if you – or at least others like you – don’t participate, the mailing list will fade like a dance undanced. In each case, these email messages are creating publics, but publics as varied in their expectations and behaviors as those we encounter when we walk down a real street having a private talk in a public sphere.
This fundamental publicness of the Web – the Web exists because people make public themselves and their thoughts – alters the character of its public space. The real world’s public spaces generally get their value from their nearness to private spaces; Broadway without theatres in the middle of the wilderness becomes much less interesting. The Web is more like a street fair than like a city. The joy of the fair is in seeing how vendors present themselves. The joy is in the publicness of the event, the crowd, the noise, the sense of unpredictability.
In the Web space, we get to see how we all choose to show ourselves. Voyeurism is the norm. But this new public has new expectations about the nature of our public appearance. For instance, take a look at www.quakeroats.com. As of this writing, it first shows a page picturing the familiar oatmeal box with the Quaker who bears a disturbing similarity to Barbara Bush. “Quaker! Take Another Look” it states, and then it automatically takes you to the “real” home page. “Quaker! We’re more than just oats!” this new page proclaims, illustrating the point with a collage that features photos of Rice-a-Roni, Gatorade and Cap’n Crunch. Click on “About Quaker” and then on the link to the “Goal/Guiding Principles” page and you’ll read:
To be the undisputed leader in the food and beverage industry. We intend to do this by making Quaker a winning company—a place where talented people have opportunities and are rewarded for contributing to an exciting, profitable growth story. Winning means that our products will be those for which consumers hunger and thirst. Winning also means that we outpace our competitive set with consistently strong financial results.
The language is all too familiar: We are in this to win. Undisputed leader. Competitive set. Financial results. The one discordant note is the phrase “for which customers hunger and thirst,” tying Quaker’s products to actual, bodily humans, the type of creatures that have throats and bellies and that have been known to take a piss. That one slip aside, it seems that Quaker has spent some serious marketing dollars applying the principles it learned writing marketing “collateral” and has constructed a public face that is both self-congratulatory and ridiculous. What works in the real world doesn’t work in the new Web public world. In the real world, the “visuals” constructed by businesses – the facades, the billboards – are incidental to the real life of the business and incidental to why we’re out in public. On the Web, the visuals are the world. The one-sided proclamations of businesses that we take for granted in the real world are insults on the Web for the business seems to be saying “We’ll only participate in this Web world through these pretty pictures and obvious exaggerations.” There’s no private presence on the Web to give the public presentation depth. What in the real world can be merely the public face of a private enterprise is on the Web all that’s there.
Worse, Quaker has shown up in a pinstripe suit and a salesman’s patter at the street fair of the Web. The Web’s public space isn’t connective tissue stitching together private enterprises. It’s a public space that attracts people because it’s public. In this it’s like a park – we’re there in part to enjoy being in public, to wear clothes that make us feel comfortable, to gawk at others, to let our dogs slip the leash and find their own friends.
Quaker and ten thousand other companies have moved their marketing brochures to the Web because they’ve looked at sites as electronic publications rather than as constituting a new public space. It becomes much less tempting to make this mistake if we look at other Web venues such as discussion groups and email lists (which are, technically, artifacts of the Internet, not the Web). Here the public space doesn’t have the persistence of a brochure. It is a space that constructs itself dynamically by the interaction of individuals sending one another messages. For example, the Usenet discussion list alt.showbiz.gossip, to pick one of the more than 60,000 available, gets scores of postings a day, ranging in topic from who’s gay to who’s had implants to “what ever happened to” queries. The discussion only exists because people choose to make public their questions and snarky replies. Without any postings, alt.showbiz.gossip becomes only an invitation to a public space, a public space waiting to happen.
And what happens in this new public space? As in the real world public, we participate as one of a crowd. But unlike the real world public, because we participate by speaking and posting, we’re not simply reduced to what we have in common with every one else. We speak our mind. We make our jokes and flame for the fun of it. We sound like ourselves. Unlike the real world public space, our voices are not heard within the public space. Rather, our voices constitute the public space.
And this leads us to a paradox.
It’s surprising that Chris Barrett knows so much about traffic. He is, after all, _____ at Los Alamos National Labs who has spent most of his career working on _________________. [NOTE: Chris Barrett hasn’t seen or approved what I’ve written. What I’ve written may be factually or attitudinally wrong.]
__ years ago, the scientists at Los Alamos National Labs were looking for ways to use the computing power they’ve amassed to calculate little problems like the behavior of atoms in nuclear blasts and the unfolding of the universe in its initial nanoseconds. What problem is there of equivalent difficulty? It turns out that the behavior of cars – the way traffic coagulates and clots in such seemingly random ways – is a problem of truly gigantic proportions.
Scientists are struggling with the basic models to use. Some think of traffic as a fluid with waves rippling through it. Others think it exemplifies chaos theory. Others look at traffic slowdowns as phase changes. But Chris Barrett thinks of traffic as “particles with motive." As particles, the behavior of drivers creates patterns in the aggregate, as snowflakes swirl together and form drifts in predictable shapes. As particles with motive, the behavior of an individual driver is less predictable and determined than that of a snowflake.
He explains: “You just can't average over the representations of people like you can with, say, electrons. This is exactly what science has really never gotten right about scientific principles and tools for things like transport policy. Even if the measurements you make – for example, the mean speed on a road or ratios of turns in different directions at a signal light – even if these are averaged, if you’re to produce them meaningfully in simulation you have to let the bottom-up properties of individuals, their interdependencies, and various constraints evolve. It is those things, not the turning ratios, and so forth, that matter.”
For example, at toll plazas, you’ll often see some cars waiting on long lines while other cars are zooming through empty lanes at either extreme. The lines at toll plazas frequently form the familiar bell curve. We can learn this through simple observation and base our predictions on it. But unlike the bell curve formed in the hoary science fair experiment of dropping marbles down an incline with obstacles that randomize the results, the behavior of the drivers is determined by some complex mix of assumptions and motives. Why these particles with motive in this instance recreate a pattern typical of random activity is a mystery. But, we can only understand the mystery by looking past the aggregate behavior to the individual motives of individual drivers.
We are particles when viewed as part of a mass. We have motive when viewed as individuals. Understanding both at once when it comes to something as simple as traffic apparently requires a supercomputer and a fleet of top scientists.
But there’s another mystery here, beyond our behavior as drivers. People are enormously resistant to the idea that they are predictable. At least in “fiercely independent” cultures like that of the United States, we believe that free choice makes us individuals, and free choice has to be unpredictable to be free. This puts us in a difficult position, however, for it is clearly the case that the behavior of groups is often highly predictable: the bartender at the Anarchists Convention knows exactly how many bottles of lite beer to stock.
When comparing individuals to groups, we feel the moral and even ontological gravity belongs to individuals: first and foremost we as individual people are real and have value. Groups are intangible and somehow less real than the individuals who compose them. After all, there would be no groups without individuals. And it gets worse as the group gets bigger. Necessarily, we assume, the larger the group, the less we have in common with it. The lowest common denominator sinks lower and lower as we move from our circle of close friends to our acquaintances in the Parents-Teachers Association to our membership in the AARP. Groups become more faceless as they get larger, while what is most real to us is our individuality.
Then we come to the largest of all social groups: The Public. We have no choice about joining this particular club; we’re members because we’re alive. But, of course, The Public is not a real social group. Its members don’t know one another. It has no structure, no leaders, no rites or rules of membership, no objectives, no charter, no duties. We think of ourselves as being part of The Public precisely when we’re appealing to that which we have in common with others. The Public is where we are most faceless, most distinct from the individuality that we treasure so highly and which seems like the most real part of us.
And yet there is something basic about being a member of the public. It is not like belonging to a bowling league or a political party. Precisely because it isn’t optional – there’s no sign-up and no way to resign – it expresses something important about us. Being public creatures is part of being social creatures. Public and private are poles of our existence.
This feels paradoxical. We are individuals, yet as individuals we are necessarily part of a faceless mass. How odd.
Usually it doesn’t bother us. But there are times and ways in which the disjunction between being an individual and being a member of the public – being private and being public – confronts us. For example, to marketers, we are not just particles with motive but particles with will and – most important – particles with money. Marketing for a hundred years has been based right on the heart of the paradox. Marketers want to affect you quite personally. They want you to give them the money you’ve worked for and that you lay awake in bed worrying about. And they want to change the behavior of the particles in their economic universe by appealing to the most personal of motives: your desire to be admired, to stay healthy, to breed with the most comely exemplars of our species.
But, the most efficient way of reaching potential customers has been through broadcast media. So, just as the Industrial Revolution drove down the cost of manufacturing by creating identical, interchangeable products through interchangeable workers, the broadcast revolution drove down the cost of marketing by inventing interchangeable customers.
Thus was the consumer created, a type of particle defined by what it buys. A consumer dwells not in a flesh and blood world but in a “demographic segment” which consists of a few salient characteristics: 18-24 urban males, 35-45 middle income stay-at-home moms, etc. The characteristics defining the segment could, of course, make much less sense than this: if people with “J” as a middle initial who sing in the shower respond positively to sky-written ads urging them to buy beanies, they would become the beanie industry’s hottest new demographic. As members of a segment, we are nothing but a shared set of salient characteristics.
The people in demographic groups – we – resent being corralled that way. Yes, we may be a 45-55 white suburban male, but it’s demeaning to see that put down on paper as if that made us like every other 44-55 white guy trapped in the suburbs. And while it may be statistically true that 45-55 white suburban males drink a disproportionate amount of Yoohoo and we’ll boost our spending on electric pitchforks if we see a sexy babe stroke one in an ad, we resent the notion that we’re programmable particles. It’s bad enough being reduced to a composite portrait; it’s worse to be told that at that level we can be manipulated like ants following a pheromone path.
The way we look to marketers, in other words, is precisely how we don’t look to ourselves.
This disparity of views slaps us across the face every time we receive junk mail that calls us “friend” and pretends to know us. Who needs a freshman course in Existentialism when we’re confronted with such outrageous examples of inauthenticity in every day’s mail? Of course, we become inured to these assaults, and usually sweep the envelope into the recycle bin without pausing to savor the absurdity – and the insult of – “personal” mass mailings that speak in the voice of friendship while seeing only a statistical approximation of our very real faces.
The paradox of the public – a faceless mass of face-ful individuals – isn’t always as insidious as it is in marketing. In fact, it is a positive force every time we step into a voting booth. Consider the oddness of the situation. We wait on a long line to vote, step into the booth, and think that our individual vote is making a difference. Yet the longer the lines, the less likely that it will matter that we exercised our right to vote. And, as the election gets larger in scope, my choices become more attenuated. I’m more likely to find someone who represents my views and values when voting for the members of the local school board than when I cast my vote for the president. I have to reduce the complexities of my political thinking –how to live equitably with my fellow citizens – to a choice of only two parties, with an occasional third party available as a guaranteed loser. The “Democrat” and “Republican” choices are a type of lowest-common-denominator politics, as vapid as the marketers’ demographic segments.
When I stand in the voting booth, facing choices I’d often rather not have to make and cast a vote in an election that will turn out the same if I simply exit the booth without voting, I sense something deeply personal and resonant. The fact that I am merely one person in a land of other people is humbling and affirming. I am merely one, but I am one. By virtue of being a member of the public, I get to cast a vote equal to everyone else’s. By making my choice, I assert the importance of my individuality. That is the paradox of the public put positively.
The Web is not merely spinning the paradox of the public positively. It’s re-writing its terms.
Modern fame is the counter-face of the mass public. While the vast majority are perfectly faceless as members of the public, a handful become well-known, even intimately known. We can say and think what we want about them – Did you hear that Michael Jackson is a child molestor? Don’t you know that Keanu Reeves is secretly married to David Geffin? – because the gap between Them and us is unbridgeable. The more faceless we feel, the more important The Famous become. The Famous are so far removed from us ordinary folks that when we bump into a Famous Person at an airport or on a ity street, we feel that our realities are mixing. The Legion of the Famous serves our culture as a common referent: no matter how you feel about Harrison Ford as an actor, I can count on you knowing that he is an actor. This shared Pantheon solves one of the key problems of massively large societies in which people don’t know one another and may not have that much in common with one another: we all know about the same movies and the same stars.
There is such as thing as being famous on the Web but it’s tellingly different from real world fame. In the real world, Fame in the real world consists of being known by hundreds of millions of people, many of whom may not care about you or your work. For example, I know World Wrestling League names such as The Rock, Mankind, and China without caring a whit about them or their high jinx. I know about Kathy Lee, Ivana Trump, Sarah Ferguson and the Taco Bell dog without caring one whit about them. On the Web, however, people are famous to the extent to which people know their site or listen to their voice. On the Web, all fame is local.
For example, if you have a question about setting up your home network – one of those simple tasks that gets devilishly difficult all too often – the site I’ve found most helpful is www.helmig.com. There you’ll see one of the Web’s most garish, amateurishly designed sites. It violates just about every rule of Web design: Too many elements competing for attention, each louder than another. Annoying sound effects. Pointless animated graphics. Yet, it’s easy to find the links you need – step-by-step instructions, troubleshooting, instructions specific to the operating system you’re using. This “helmig” character takes you by the hand and shows you exactly what you need to do to set up your machine so that it can talk to others on your network. Almost every step is accompanied by a screen capture showing you precisely what you should be seeing on your own computer monitor. If one troubleshooting path fails, Helmig has a link taking you to the next.
This site looks even better when you compare it to Microsoft’s own pages. Microsoft has packed a tremendous of information onto its site, but you have to know a lot in order to find it. And when you do find it, it’s expressed in technical language that assumes you’re a professional network administrator. The site is well organized but sterile and without a single crack in its façade through which a human face can be seen.
Now compare both of these sites with www.marthastewart.com. Apparently Martha Stewart is too famous to need her photo on the home page, but click on the top link (“To Do Today”) and you’re taken to a page describing how to make a “glowing snowball topiary” (“Bring the luster of freshly-rolled snowballs indoors with this easy-to-make lamp. A coat of faux snow transforms plain white Styrofoam balls into convincing replicas of the real thing…”). And there’s Stewart, holding a lamp that looks like a small pile of glowing cannonballs. But we don’t really need her picture at all. The site is redolent with Martha-ness. Her television personality comes through like light through a Styrofoam ball.
Helmig is no Martha Stewart on any count, except both are famous. Yet, Martha is famous among those who know of her, while Helmig is famous almost entirely only among those who know him. Of course, the sense in which we know Helmig online is different than the offline sense. I’ve never met Helmig. We’ve never exchanged email or chatted online. He has no idea who I am although I’ve been to his site many times. What I know of him is what he chooses to show of himself on the Web. “Web Helmig” may be quite different from “Real-World Helmig,” but I’ll never know, unless Web Helmig chooses to tell me more about Real-World Helmig…and that becomes part of Web Helmig as well. For example, if you click on a link on the page you can go to a page Helmig’s written about himself and find out that he’s a 41-year-old Belgian named J. Helmig, rather nerdy looking, who works at Gerber Technology. He’s a Star Trek fan who tapes all the episodes, although, as he points out, he “does not yet have a uniform.” Based on this information and on the “body language” of the page – its layout, use of graphics, its brevity, what he does not talk about, etc. – I now have more of a picture of Helmig. But this portrait is, by Helmig’s choosing, rather sparse. It is what he has chosen to disclose about himself and nothing more. And, of course, it could all be a pack of lies.
It’s not just Web page providers such as Helmig who become famous on the Web. Local fame, or fame among those who know you, is an important driver of the Internet overall. Discussion groups and email lists that last a while almost inevitably develop a handful of personae who can be counted on to speak frequently and in character. For example, at alt.showbiz.gossip, a Usenet discussion group, you can rely on Matt Lupo for helpful but amusing information, David Migicovsky for surprisingly vituperative rantings, and Miss Lo for the definitive word about who’s dead and who just hasn’t been heard from for a while. (By the way, habituees of the discussion group favor http://dpsinfo.com/index.shtml, the Dead Person Server that maintains lists of departed celebrities.) All we know about these people are their typically arch comments. Similarly, on a mailing list by which a few hundred former employees of a software company keep in touch, one participant consistently is hilarious and another adopts the persona of a learned crank. Because of the exceptional quality of their postings, they are stars. They are famous. They are celebrities. But only within a circle of a few hundred people.
Fame on the Web is similar to the nature of craftwork. Craftspeople, by the nature of their work, limit their production. They can reach orders of magnitude fewer people than can those who engage in mass manufacturing. The local craftsperson has this type of local fame. And there is no doubt that it’s satisfying to many people. Local fame on the Web is, of course, different in that the locality is defined by those who are interested in a topic, not by geography. But, because the products on the Web are digital, there is no natural boundary around how large the circle of fame can grow; the local cabinet maker can only make so many cabinets, but the local Web quip maker can theoretically reach everyone on the Web with her quips.
Consider Mike Collins. At his site, www.taterbrains.com, he publishes mildly amusing cartoons that he’s drawn with a paucity of technical skill but quite a bit of enthusiasm. Some group of people find them funny and insightful. They check back regularly. They email the cartoons to their friends. They put in links on their site. To them, Mike Collins is famous. Then, in the midst of the 2000 presidential election brouhaha, Collins drew a sketch of a Palm Beach “butterfly” ballot that showed all choices as hopelessly confusing except for George Bush’s. He sent his sketch to about 30 friends who passed it along to their friends, and within days it had reached millions of people. His local Web fame had gone global – although because his name wasn’t on the cartoon, the vast majority of people didn’t know who had drawn it. Collins even found himself profiled in offline journals such as USA Today, Time, and the NY Times Magazine. As of this writing, he’s trying to parlay his global fame into something more than a flash in the pan. In fact, he’s trying to convert his momentary celebrity into a marketable commodity. If he succeeds, his fame will be of a very different sort. He may even become famous to people who know of him but who don’t like his work or visit his site. He will no longer be “merely” locally famous on the Web.
<<Butterfly ballot jpg: http://www.smallpieces/images/butterfly-ballot.jpg>>
Achieving global fame may make Collins rich, but it will change the nature of the group that supports him. They will now become merely part of a large market of consumers of his work as opposed to a relatively small group that feels some identity because they know of his work. He may even become internationally famous on the Web, the way Matthew Drudge is or Jakob Nielsen. But if he does, it’s just about certain that his readers will feel free to write him personal emails and won’t be shocked to receive a real reply, as if in the real world they saw Harrison Ford in an airport and he invited them to have a cup of coffee with him. That wouldn’t happen in the real world. It is the norm in the cyber world.
Similarly, the Web famous often have the urge to reveal more of themselves in a much more direct fashion. For example, Dan Gillmor, a columnist for the print newspaper The San Jose Mercury News, writes a “weblog,” a daily journal of informal notes. Obn December 25, 2000, his entry consisted of a photo of his new niece, Ella. Or, consider Chris Pirillo, who writes a zine with over 200,000 subscribers. The ‘zine isn’t about Chris; it has tips for using Windows more successfully. Yet, around the same time as Dan was posting his niece’s photo, he put in a link to a “Christmas album” of online photos of how he and his wife spent their first Christmas together. Within twenty-four hours, over half of his subscribers had taken a look at the homey photos. They feel such a connection to Chris that they clicked and endured the download times.
On the Web, the masses of individuals who support the fame of other individuals still consist of people who not only have faces but who expect to be acknowledged as such. If real world fame flourishes because of the essential separation between us and The Beautiful People, Web game is among people who feel just an email awayh from a personal reply, who want to see the baby pictures not the tabloid headlines. It is fame in a small village, local fame … which seems ironic only if we assume that when everyone on the planet is out in public, they will become faceless and voiceless. That’s true in the real world, especially in an age of broadcasting, but it is undone by the direct connection, heart to heart, of the Web.
Fame on the Web reflects the odd nature of the Web. Because the Web isn’t a pre-existing space to be filled, it is co-extensive with what people express of themselves. To be famous on the Web is to be read by people who are therefore interested in reading what you’ve written. But the Web isn’t simply a community of mutual readers. It consists of people who actively jump into conversations, dialogues, shouting matches, love-ins, flame wars and cybersex. Not only is Web fame local, it builds localities – people who are related not by the accidents of demographic characteristics but by their shared caring about someone or something. Fame off the Web is an artifact of the facelessness of the public: the inhabitants of the pantheon are glorious because they have escaped the anonymity of the rest of us. Fame on the Web is pulls together groups of people around a genuine shared interest. Fame on the Web is a special type of group.
It is only one of a vast diversity of groups the Web enables. Unlike the broadcast medium which assumes and, more important, creates a faceless mass public, the Web is fundamentally about groups.
[NOTE: David Reed hasn’t seen or approved what I’ve written. What I’ve written may be factually or attitudinally wrong.] This is a central point made by David Reed, one of the designers of the basic communications standard used by the Internet. If you read his personal home page quickly, you’ll get the wrong impression, for it begins:
Dr. David P. Reed enjoys architecting the information space in which people, groups and organizations interact
and it ends with the following description of his “Avocations”:
Dr. Reed continues to build and prototype home LANs and portable computer technology in his home laboratory.
Could it be any geekier? Reed is, in fact, a socially conscious, genius-level technologist who has participated in some of the founding events of the personal computer revolution. He was chief scientist at VisiCalc, the company that invented the spreadsheet. Eventually, Lotus outflanked VisiCalc with their 1-2-3 product; Reed was chief scientist at Lotus and oversaw the development of 1-2-3. He is currently an “independent entrepreneur” and consultant, which means he gets paid to be smart. And, if you read his home page more carefully, it becomes clear that Reed understands the social relevance of the computing environment he has helped to create. For example, his home page says
His consulting practice focuses on businesses that want to capture or create value resulting from disruptive dispersion of network and computing technology into the spaces in which people and companies collaborate and partner.
This is Net Geek talk for recognizing that the Internet is the opposite of a hand grenade thrown into a market: it is almost as disruptive, but brings people together rather than tearing them apart. As you talk with him, he brings the conversation back to the practical effect of the Web on social groups. Indeed, his interest in how people relate to one another extends beyond the Web; Reed is involved in social action projects such as Greenstar, a non-profit organization enabling remote, poor portions of the world to use the Web to enter and alter the global economy.
Reed is also the author of a paper that emends a “meme” developed by Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of the Ethernet networking standard and well-known curmudgeon. Metcalfe’s Law says that the value of a network grows with the square of the number of people or computers that it connects. For example, a telephone network with 4 people on it is 8 times more valuable than one with 2 people on it. In other words, as you draw a straight line showing the growth in the number of participants, the line showing the value of the network takes off in a steeper curve.
Reed’s Law, on the other hand, says: “Networks that support the construction of communicating groups create value that scales exponentially with network size.” Telephone systems don’t very readily support groups, but the Internet does. In fact, the Internet not only supports an immense variety of groups, but that’s one of the main attractions of the Internet. In such networks, says Reed, the Metcalfe’s steep value curve is overshadowed by an even steeper curve caused by the value of groups.
As with Metcalfe’s Law, the general direction of the curve makes perfect sense. People form groups because they find more value in the group than in remaining unaffiliated individuals. Thus, networks that support groups are necessarily supporting higher-value groupings. So, of course the value of these networks will be higher. We can leave arguments over the exact amounts of value – the steepness of the curve – to mathematicians, especially since the term “value” in both Metcalfe’s and Reed’s laws is equally undefined; whatever “value” means, there’s more of it in a networks that allow groups to form.
“Value” has to remain squishy when it comes to groups, for the value of the group may be different for different people in the group. Indeed, the range of groups on the Web, as off the Web, is staggering. Consider: members of the “interleft” mailing list for ex-employees of Interleaf, people who regularly play Quake on a particular server and start to recognize one another’s names, active participants in a discussion board that’s been up for over a year dedicated to thoughts about one particular book, people who have registered with www.travelocity.com for making travel plans, people who receive progressive film-maker Michael Moore’s friendly emails about politics, friends of Tim Hiltabiddle to whom he occasionally sends out humor he’s found on the Web, participants in a mailing list consisting of people who attended the “BigHook” conference in the fall of 2000, and everyone who receives spam about Viagra. Each of these groups is different in their constitution, their behavior, their rules, their longevity. And, not only is it possible for one person to be a member of all these groups, but I am.
We could, of course, come up with a similar list in the real world: people standing on line at the deli, the guests in a particular hotel, subscribers to TV Guide, cousins of Sammy Berliner. But there are differences between real world groups and purely Web groups, (that is, Web groups that aren’t concomitants of real world groups). Of course Web groups are not dependent on geographic closeness. Of course this means that Web groups tend to be more purely interest-based than real world groups. But, just as important, Web groups are different in time. If we limit ourselves to social groups – groups where people know one another – Web groups spread themselves across time differently. Real world social groups usually are dependent on meetings. Some time has to be assigned and preserved against intrusion. Then we all get together, once a week to go bowling, once a month to talk about books, once a year to reminisce about our army days. Web groups, on the other hand, are more continuous and less demanding when it comes to scheduling. Consider the difference between the Emily Dickinson Society that meets once a month in the real world and the set of Dickinson readers that have found one another on the Web – imaginary examples in both cases. The real world society sets aside the first Tuesday night of every month to get together. While individual members may, of course, chat about the Belle of Amherst whenever they run into one another, the groups’ talk about Dickinson is confined to that two hour session. Miss it and you’ve missed it for the month. The Web-based Dickinson group, on the other hand, is as omnipresent as the members want. They have a monthly newsletter but the life of the group is a listserver that lets each member send a message to all other members. Merry may wake up on Wednseday with a notion that a line in one of Dickinson letters proves that Susan Gilbert was the object of “Wild Nights.” She skips breakfast, writes up her idea, and sends it off to the Dickinson listserv in which she participates. By the time she arrives at work, her message has been received by all 150 participants and two have written back. Throughout the day, more messages arrive as the list members check their email and find the time to dash off a note. This isn’t just a rolling conversation, as compared with the monthly meetings of the real world Dickinson club, it is a conversation that consists of many small pieces loosely joined. There is a persistence to the conversation. Not only is it going on continuously intermittently, but you can check in on it whenever you want; it is always there.
In fact, threads of discussion take on their own life, their own way of being in time. A thread is a set of messages on a particular topic and that share a subject line, e.g., “New evidence that Wild Nights was about Gilbert.” Threads stay alive so long as people contribute to them. They may meander and the frequency of contributions may slow, but so long as some messages are coming in every day or so, the thread is alive and open. Sometimes threads are explicitly killed – “Take it offline!” someone writes – but more often they simply die of neglect. And while the same topic may come up again six months later, that will be a new thread, not a resuscitation of an old one.
All this may seem quite unexceptional, and to those who are routinely engaged in such discussions, it is mundane to the max. But it is really quite remarkable. What do we have like it in the real world? A book club meets for a few hours a month. Chance meetings in the street or the bookstore that lead to conversations about “Wild Nights” are lovely but accidental. Snail mail letters going back and forth about it are slow and only between two people. Classes on Emily Dickinson occur on a schedule and discuss the topics the professor finds interesting. While elements of these real world conversations appear in threaded discussions, there is nothing quite like them off the Web. Most important, these discussions create a new type of public space. Because the discussions and their threads are persistent – although the threads have a much shorter “shelf life” than the discussion group itself – they create a new type of public space. Because these threads are occurring through email, they are not spatial in the way that Web sites are, but they have the persistence and inter-subjectivity that are characteristic of public areas. And a new type of public space calls forth new types of publics, of groups, especially when the public space depends for its existence on the public engaging with it – that is, these discussion groups do not occur in a public space but create a public space, as we’ve discussed.
These Web groups change the nature of membership itself. Off the Web, we can differentiate two types of groups: ones we join on purpose and ones we belong to by virtue of other decisions. We choose to join the book club in order to become a member, but we unintentionally become a member of the group of people who have bought from the local bookstore simply by buying a book there. The second type of group is actually better thought of as a grouping. Demographic groups, for example, are in fact groupings. While there are of course groupings on the Web – everyone who’s downloaded Quake 3 from www.idsoftware.com, everyone who’s registered at www.wallstreetjournal.com – the Web public consists of people who have grouped themselves, as opposed to the real world public which is the broadest grouping we have. Further, while there are plenty of groups on the Web that control membership, they are the exception. The norm and the default is for groups to be open to anyone who cares to join. What is the membership criterion? Interest. Membership and participation are identical for the most part with Web groups, unlike in the real world where membership is a requirement for participation.
This naturally affects the group dynamic. It’s common for people to participate by “lurking,” that is, reading the postings without making any postings themselves. But if you choose to join the fray, who you are and your standing in the group are determined purely by what you put forth. The openness of Web groups leads to anonymity that ensures that all that’s known about you is what you choose to reveal – or invent. But how many people agree with what you’ve written? This can be extraordinarily difficult to gauge since there is no equivalent of nodding your head online. If 90% of the people in the Dickinson group agree with Merry’s thesis about “Wild Nights,” Merry may never know it, for it’s generally considered bad form to send email that simply says “Uh huh” and “Me too.” These supportive comments, so important in real world discussions, simply clog the pipes on the Web; no one wants to wake up to 35 messages in the “Wild Nights” thread only to discover that the 34 are people saying “I agree.” So the discussion continues not until most people are nodding and agreeing but when the last remaining antagonist has said the last possible interesting thing. At that point the thread dies a natural death or someone says “You’re going down some trivial rabbit hole, dude! How about taking it off line?” The thread itself consists of voices and the dynamic of the thread encourages only the voices of difference to be heard. The differences may be complementary, they may be enthusiastic extendings of a line of thought, or they may be critical, flaming or even abusive. But the nature of the Web is such that the groups that it brings together consist of voices in difference.
Of course this isn’t radically different from the real world. The book club meets once a month at Merry’s house because the members have different points of view. But imagine that the meeting was held in the dark with a spotlight shining on each person as she speaks. Imagine that the only sound you can hear is that of the person speaking. Imagine you were unaware of the nodding and the “Uh huh”s and the body language that says that I’m uncomfortable with what you’re saying or that encourages you to say more. This would be a very different sort of meeting. It might encourage you to speak more freely or it might completely inhibit you; it depends on how you feel about talking with a spotlight on you. It might, indeed, encourage you to say more and more outrageous things to encourage the next speaker to address your remarks, for that is the only way you’ll know that anyone was listening at all. This would be especially true if the people at the meeting only knew you by a name you chose for yourself – “The Anti-Emily” or “Sweetness and Spice” or “Sappho’s Fire” or whatever. By this time, although the old-style meeting and this new-fangled oddball meeting we’re describing can both be characterized as a gathering of people with a shared interest to engage in conversation from differing points of view, they’re so fundamentally different in their character that we’d be justified in saying that they’re different in their nature.
We’ve been taking a mailing list as our example of a Web group, but there are many different types of Web groups that share these characteristics to varying degrees. In fact, one of the most exciting facets of the Internet is the way it’s enabled people to invent new types of associations. This is something we don’t get to do very often. It happened with the growth of labor unions and with the ‘70s epiphenomenona of “wife swapping,” but in the real world we’ve had thousands of years to come up with new types of associations. And given the difficulties the real world creates for getting people together – sometimes it feels as if geography was invented to keep us apart – it’s only to be expected that innovation in this field will be as infrequent as in the science of scratching ourselves. The Net, on the other hand, is a playground of associations. From www.moveon.com that tries to forge a political movement connected only by email to www.jailbabes.com that lists incarcerated “babes” eager for penpals, the Web is a hotbed of experimental couplings.
Many of these experiments are occasioned by the paradox of the public: the Web involves masses of people but each one has a face and a point of view. How can we reconcile these facts? The Web seems to be trying every conceivable approach with varying degrees of success. For example, Amazon began by letting people post reviews of books. It didn’t take long for, say, the first Harry Potter book to prompt over three thousand of them. Amazon presents the average rating of the book – 1 to 5 stars – but that doesn’t tell me much. How do I as a reader find the voices worth listening to in this mass? Amazon lets me indicate whether a particular review is helpful or not, thus using the masses to guide me. (They also use “collaborative filtering” to determine what book recommendations to make to me on the grounds that people who liked one set of books are statistically likely to a similar set of other books.) There are still three thousand Harry Potter reviews to look at, but at least I can skip over ones that others have found worthless. Amazon also uses those reviews of reviews to identify highly-rated reviewers; those reviews get flagged as especially worthwhile. Amazon then started pointing faces to the voices. Anyone who contributes a review can get a free page at Amazon that lists her other reviews so a reader can see if a reviewer has a particular animus against Emily Dickinson, for example. Further, the reviewer can tell us more about her on this page. Now there are still over 3,000 reviews I can read, but I can find out more of the context around a particular review. Finally – at least as of this writing – I can pick out a set of favorite reviewers and more easily see what they think about a particular book. Now I don’t have 3,000 reviews to read. I instead have a grouping of friends and strangers to advise me. Other sites have innovated in this regard as well. Epinions.com lists customer reviews of just about every type of consumer product. They make well-reviewed reviewers into stars and make it very easy to find out more about the person. I am able to hear voices clearly at that site.
Amazon provides other techniques for harnessing and harvesting the mass voices of their users. Insofar as users let Amazon know more about them than simply their email address, Amazon can surface information about the various groupings that naturally occur. For example, Amazon lets you see which groups are buying which books – as of this writing, people at Boeing are buying lots of copies of Body for Life: 12 Weeks to Mental and Physical Strength, the US Marine Corps is buying Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition Player's Handbook, the consulting company KPMG is buying The Beatles Anthology, Brazil is buying Jerry Seinfeld’s Sein Language, and everyone’s buying Harry Potter.
Because we have never had this type of public before, one that combines mass-ness with the ability to keep your name and voice and the possibility of direct connections among individuals and groups, the Web is a playground for new forms of social interaction. Even something as simple as a Q&A format becomes a subject of experimentation. For example, at AskJeeves, a popular Web search site, there’s a small button that links you to AnswerPoint, a site powered by Quiq. Here visitors can post any question they want, and anyone on the planet can choose to answer it. According to Kartik Ramakrishnan, one of Quiq's founders, AnswerPoint grew out of his interest in “how online communities can add value to a corporation.” He founded QUIQ with his brother, Raghu Ramakrishnan, a Professor of Computer Sciences at The University of Wisconsin-Madison. Why a question and answer format? Ramakrishnan says:
It's a basic human instinct. When we need help, we turn around and ask questions. We wanted to make it simple for other participants to share answers.
How do you predict what will happen when you open up a global forum like this? You probably can’t: a human instinct is thrown into a global environment, and the effects are always likely to surprise. For example, Ramakrishnan was surprised that people would ask the same question four or five times until he realized that the users were confusing AnswerPoint with a live chat session rather than as a bulletin board where you post a question and wait for an answer. In a live chat, if you ask something and there’s no reply, you assume you’ve been ignored, so after a minute you ask it again, and again and again. If the site made its nature clearer, users wouldn’t make this temporal mistake.
Other developments spring straight from the fact that this is a new form of social interaction. For example, Ramakrishnan noticed that “If a question doesn't get answered in 3 days, the chances of it getting answered decreases exponentially. It gets lost.” This is likely because of the mass-ness of the system: each new question pushes the previous ones down a slot, and at about three days, a question is past the point where all but the hardiest explorers will venture. Likewise, in this mass Q&A system, people’s desire to connect makes an unexpected appearance. Ramakrishnan found that people frequently use an answer to write a thank-you. So, a question might have five answers, but two or three of them are thank-yous.” With so many answers, no one wants to bother opening one only to see that it’s just a thank you, just as no one wants to receive 150 emails saying “I agree with Merry” in the Emily Dickinson mail list. A built-in “Thank you” message would drive a lot of “noise” out of the system and would thus further adopt the traditional Q&A format for a mass age. Similarly, mailing lists might someday evolve a “Right on!” button that makes it easy for people to nod visibly without choking the mailboxes of those on the list; the Amazon “Did you find this review helpful” button serves a closely related function.
What new social forms will emerge that allow individuals to have a voice in a new mass public is radically unpredictable. That’s what makes these interesting times. Some of the changes in the nature of groups are already obvious. For example, clearly they already ignore national borders except when there are good reasons to pay attention to them. And we know already that Web groups form around interests. But because some topics are shorter-lived than others, and because the hurdles to associating on the Web are so low, some groups exist only for days or hours. At one end of the continuum, it’s hard to distinguish groups from conversations. But, for Web groups participation and membership are identical in most cases. Ontologically, this means that groups really only exist on the Web insofar as people are contributing to them. But it also means that group life is much more promiscuous on the Web than off. I can enter and leave without anyone necessarily knowing. Thus groups tend to swirl and interlock and ripple through one another, like oil drops falling onto the surface of a puddle. Further, because these groups have an ontology of participation, the character of a group is often set by those with the voices that draw the most attention – whether by being calm and knowledgeable or idiotic but amusing. Because those voices are the only evidence of the person behind them, Web groups will continue to find ways to provide more context for individual voices. For example, increasingly you’ll be able to click on a contributor’s name and be taken to a page about her. Cross-group contributor pages may well emerge. This will only further open groups up so that they more and more will be defined not by the fence of membership but by the center of interest.
When the social cost of forming a group goes towards zero, we will see nano-groups – actually, “nonce groups” would be more accurate – that are as transient and shifting as people’s interests. This will be enabled by wireless technology that we carry with us – perhaps a cell phone, perhaps a palm-type organizer – that is always on and that provides instant connectivity to the people around us, ranging from people on a 14 day cruise to people waiting on line so long that they bond in their anger, not to mention the guests in a hotel, the people in a hardware store, everyone who's bought a 1973 Impala, the congregants planning on going to the church social, even the ultimate nano-group: your car and the one that just cut you off.
For example, for $9.95 a year you can get access to each day’s New York Times Crossword puzzle, as well as other related materials. One of the features is a bulletin board of subscribers who form a one-day nano-group of those who have questions or comments about the puzzle, including help with a particular clue, help understanding why a particular answer worked, or complaints about an error. Over the course of several weeks, particular voices emerge as particularly reliable or interesting. ____ often tops a puzzle clue that uses a pun or an anagram with one more memorable. And certain social forms emerge that extend beyond a particular day’s chatter. For example, if you reply to a request for the answer to a clue, the proper way to do it is to change the font of the actual answer to white so that it’s only visible to those who know to select the text, causing it to invert. Supporting this convention there’s a permanent site maintained by the editor of the crossword that explains how exactly to create white text in a posting to the bulletin board. This permanent exoskeleton allows the daily nano-group to form.
There is, inevitably, a political aspect to nano-groups. People have a reason for initiating a group, even one as transient as a nano-group. There are three typical reasons for forming a group: to get some information, to take some action, or to entertain one another. Since nano-groups will usually be groups of strangers, the first two reasons will likely be more common. Knowing that a group can form and take action if the information it gathers isn’t satisfactory gives these groups a political edge. For example, if someone in the nano-group waiting on line at an airline counter announces that she’s just been told the flight’s been delayed, and someone else says that there’s another flight at the airline next door, action will ensue. This is the scale at which we’ll see the Web affect politics most directly.
Many small groups loosely joined.
In the real world, a public space is one that we do not need permission to enter. And once we’re in a public space, we need no one’s permission to behave the way we want … within certain guidelines of course. Those guidelines generally reflect the simple fact that public space by its nature is shared equally with everyone else. So, we walk well aware of the pace of the other pedestrians in our stream, we may be required by law to clean up what our dogs leave behind, and we save our operatic performances for the shower. The rules governing public spaces are generally confined to those that maintain maximum freedom of behavior; public space is permission-free except where my actions may inhibit yours. Even if we’re socialist about designating public spaces, within public spaces we all tend to become Libertarians: “Your dog’s freedom to poop ends where my shoes begin.”
The Web is also deeply permission-free. As we’ve discussed in Chapter ____, it was built by millions of individuals who built sites without asking anyone for an OK. We can join the Web simply because we want to. No one has to give us permission to post what we want on our site. We can visit the sites that we want, download the ideas and pictures that excite us, send email to any address we can find, and participate in a chat under any name we want, all without asking a single committee to review, adjudicate, and decide if what we’re doing is responsible, mature, respectable or In The Best Interests of the Business, the Nation or even ourselves. Every time we go out on the Web, we implicitly acknowledge that this new world is fundamentally a permission-free zone.
Although both the real world public spaces and the Web are characterized by their being permission-free, they are deeply different, and this leads to clashes that would be difficult to resolve if the two publics were the same in nature and are impossible to resolve because they are not.
The real world public is mixed up with concepts of ownership. Private places are owned privately, whereas public spaces are held by municipal or other governments. In fact, privately-owned places and things can become public and still be privately owned if the owners allow everyone to use the facility without first asking permission. After all, the mark of ownership is that I can do what I want with what I own. If I own a book, I can toss it on the fire because I like the way the binding burns; if I’ve borrowed the book from you or from the public library, I do not have permission to set it ablaze. Thus, in the real world, the ability to grant permission comes from ownership.
Not on the Web. But here we enter the realm of myth. By “myth” I mean our pre-rational way of understanding a context. I call it “myth” rather than “basic assumptions” or some such to emphasize both that these are ways of understanding that condition the rest of our thought, and they are not truly arguable. I certainly don’t mean to imply that because they are myths, they’re untrue or concern epic doings.
The myth of the public in the real world says that in owning something, I gain control of access to it. I buy the car I’ve been renting so that I will be the one who determines who will drive it. I may grant permission to use it, but that is an exception. Ownership means taking possession and excluding others. But the Web is a published world. While I can make parts of it inaccessible by requiring subscription fees and passwords, the establishing of a Web site is fundamentally the creating of a public expression. The Web myth says that ownership on the Web implies expressing oneself in public.
In both worlds, you can have privately held places that are public or private. The difference comes in the default behaviors, the assumptions, the myths. At heart, the difference between the myths has everything to do with the nature of space in the two worlds. The real world is a set of private enclaves connected to one another by public stretches; further the private world is embedded in a huge container of public space. The Web world, of course, doesn’t exist in a container of space, and thus Web places aren’t arranged sequentially. Public space isn’t a connector of private spaces. Rather, all there is to the Web are these public spaces contained publications by private individuals and organizations. The two myths are not at all congruent.
They become even less congruent when the worlds collide. Because the real world public is bound up with ownership, the permissions of real world public space and behaviors are mired in multiple layers of legality – for ownership is at the root of much of the necessity for our complex set of laws and courts. Because Web ownership – as a default and as a myth – implies publicness and sharing of the “asset,” the Web doesn’t start off with the same impulse to build a legal hedge around what is one’s own. After all, we registered domain names and built sites in order to share the site with others, not to hire a fleet of lawyers to make sure that no one takes from us anything that’s ours.
That’s why discussion of controlling access to the Web and censoring the materials put on the Web is so disturbing even to Web denizens who believe that the nature of the Web will make it impervious to the censors. It is an attack from one world to another. The real world feels threatened by the hostility to permission the Web is breeding, so it wants to shut it down. The real world may believe that this is simply an attempt to shut down a few obnoxious sites, to file down the rough edges of the Web, but it is in fact a struggle for the founding myth. Even if you can’t really control the Web, the attempt to, even the wish to, is an expression of a discontent with the myth and thus with the meaning of the reality. In other words, it’s like a parent thinking that his argument with his teenaged child about getting a pierced nose is really about getting a pierced nose. Much more is a stake. Myths are in collision.
[rw public we have zones of privacy where we pretend not to hear]
The paradox of the public is rooted not in markets and demographics or even in individuals and masses. It ultimately is a reflection of one of the two abiding mysteries: there are other people and I am going to die.
We’ll leave the second mystery to Russian novelists and beret-wearing sidewalk philosophers. But the first mystery is just as flummoxing: I am the one who hears what I hear, who feels what I feel, who sees things from this precise and exact physical perspective. Not you, not anyone else. And I may be one perspective among billions of others, but this perspective not only is the only I have, it constantly forces itself upon me. The fact that there are other people whose differences are only begun to be expressed by our different physical standpoints can be – should be – a source of deep wonder. Awe at the other. It’s inspired a lot of poetry.
Sherry Turkle writes brilliantly in Life on the Screen about the objects on computer screens – she is thinking more about user interface widgets than about virtual worlds – in a “post-modern” context as pure surface, drawing the connection to modern French philosophy’s discussion of “a world without depth, a world of surface.” The point of depth isn’t simply that it’s hidden but that it’s privileged. It is what’s real, for it is what the surfaces are surfaces of. In a post-modern world of pure surfaces, the lack of depth means that there is no privileged point of view. The world becomes purely a social construction, and no construction is closer to “the truth” than any other; such a manner of thinking would be trés outmoded.
Yes, the world may be a social construction. But it is never merely a social construction. It is instead a magnificent work that embodies currents of language so deep that it requires poets to find them. It is a construction that allows the world and the things of the world to leap out at us but also to nestle one against the other and even to pull back from us like a creature afraid of the light. It is a world in which each rock fits so well in its hole in the ground. But let us give the French philosophers their moment: yes, the world shows itself to us in ways determined by our tacit social agreements and prejudices conveyed through language, literature and common sense. Even then, even in that moment when we glimpse the fragility and arbitrariness of the structures in which we’ve gowned the earth, we understand that this construction is social. We are here with other people.
Ultimately, the world is only public because it is shared. At every instant, our understanding, our behavior and even our perception is shaped by the fact that there are other people. Even at the moment of solitude, when we’re at the top of the impossible mountain and are standing alone with nothing between us and the spread of land and the crashing of sky against it, we are reveling in being alone – which is only possible because we understand that the rest of the busy world awaits us when we descend.
The fact that we are a named individual who becomes faceless when amassed with all others into this thing we call “the public” only becomes problematic because we are aware not only that we are not faceless but neither are any of the other particles with motive. Each person driving past us on the highway is going someplace particular and – to us – unpredictable. Behind each window we pass are people who see our car whizzing past or do not but in either case haven’t the slightest idea what we care about or fear or love. It is a fact as deep as birth and death and it is the fact that enables love.
So, if we say that humans are social, we don’t mean that we tend to like one another or even that it takes a village to raise a child or a civilization to raise a world. We mean that we live in a shared world. We are here with others.
[THE END. The rest consists of notes:]
Yet, of course, it is. The Web is our new public space.
Because public space is space in the geographic world,
Parks interesting because we get to see what people would do when they’re not required to do anything.
Further, the owners only ever had the right because some authority granted that right to them. In democracies, that authority ultimately comes from the people – the public itself.
The landscape of EverQuest exists on a server in ____, run by Verant. It is a medieval world of castles and fields and, of course, magic. But to get beyond a mere landscape, EverQuest relies on hundreds of thousands of people who pay to visit it. There they assume an identity and attempt to … . EverQuest is a pioneer in the field of massively multi-player role-playing games.
One of the game’s more persistent players went by the name Mystere of Brell Serilis. He chose to be a member of the race of elves, the evil doers according to the context-setting history created by Verant. While online, Mystere as an elf can engage in all sorts of mischief and even evil. Other players can team up to defeat him. The rules are few. That’s what draws people into EverQuest. Over the course of time, your character gains strength, depending on your exploits. The persistence and dynamism of your character across multiple sessions that may run for months or even years encourages participants to identify with those characters – these aren’t simply Monopoly pieces that you’re moving around a board. Amassing powers is so laborious that characters are routinely auctioned at eBay, occasionally fetching thousands of dollars. In July of 2000, Mystere published a short story on a gamers’ site unaffiliated with Verant. In October, as a result of that story, he was banished from the EverQuest site.
Mystere explains (in an interview at another gamers’ site, www.dailyradar.com):
I wrote the story because I'd become a bit bored with my current character and wanted something new. I had some friends who played dark elf rogues in the game, and they had some excellent roleplay attached to it. So I thought I'd go along with it. The story was meant to be an intro to that character (which was never created)…. The dark elves are steeped in evil. I just wanted to give a glimpse into that picture. The idea sprang from the idea of a woman poisoning her lover with the polish on her fingernails. As I sat down to write, I felt I didn't want her to start out as completely evil, but had some major motivation for that. Something so overwhelming that she would never think twice about her killing of others later. Since I don't believe that anybody is born evil (I have five beautiful children by the way, I cherish them more than life itself), I pictured something happening to her when she was very young. Hence her becoming a slave to this monster … In the end, the story was supposed to be about an evil person getting what he deserved, and the birth of a dark presence in the world.
The banning sparked a furor on the message boards frequented by EverQuest players. For example, Marduk wrote: “When did fiction external to the game become grounds for banning in any ROLEPLAYING game?” Hasn’t Mystere done exactly what EverQuest would hope? She’s taken a character out of EverQuest and developed it further.
From Mystere’s point of view, she was in the middle of writing a new self for her to play. In the real world, we develop our character and then write our story: we look backwards and point to the events that are significant given what we have become. Online, Mystere was working in the opposite direction: the story shapes the character.
Of course, this is far from Verant’s poing of view. In the EverQuest Forum, Verant’s CEO John Smedley wrote:
[N]one of us wants to stop people from writing awesome fan-fiction about EQ … [W]e aren't going to be looking at every fan site and becoming the Thought Police. We have neither the time, nor the inclination to do that. However we need to protect EverQuest's good image as best we can.
World as fundamentally public place – recognition of simultaneous disclosure.