Meeting Aaron Swartz

By now, quite a few people know who Aaron Swartz was. It’s a shame that the world has only become acquainted with this brilliant young man because of what happened on January 11th of this year. Aaron took his own life after the stress of multiple felony indictments became too much. Aaron’s crime was downloading academic journal articles from a database that only academics were meant to access. His principles led him to want to share these terabytes of knowledge with the world rather than keep them locked up for commercial exploitation. Yes, you could say he was idealistic, and rash. But his life is being widely remembered and his influence being felt much more strongly now. After reading this lengthy New Yorker profile by Larissa MacFarquhar, I thought I should put up my much more innocent remembrances of meeting Aaron.

It was as the South by Southwest Interactive conference in 2003, long before he had turned his intelligence away from simple programming to more political pursuits. And, sadly for me, this was the only time I met him, but he made an impression, on me and on my crowd of online friends, many of whom have gone on to shape the Internet in one way or another. Here’s an excerpt from my post-conference diary:

Wednesday March 12, 2003

A highlight of this year’s conference was the presence of the wee Aaron Swartz (www.aaronsw.com). He’s 16, but two years ago formulated what became RSS 1.0 and he’s working with Lawrence Lessig on Creative Commons. Obviously, this kid will buy and sell the rest of us in just a handful of years. But the funny thing is that every time someone discussed him, they gave the universal hand signal: holding the palm down and waving it back and forth about four feet off the ground. I did it myself last night at Castle Hill and Brad and Mike just cracked up. Then we did a whole bunch of jokes about Lessig dressing the kid up like Mickey Mouse and taking him to court where he’d plead “Free the Mouse”! I love geek jokes. I also said I was going to Photoshop a picture of The White Stripes with Ben and Mena Trott’s faces pasted on. The reason was actually due to a post on Aaron Swartz’s weblog. He said that there were cracks that Ben and Mena weren’t married but were actually siblings, because no one had ever seen them kiss. The White Stripes pass themselves off as brother and sister but were once actually married to each other. Not sure how many other people would get it, but I think it’s funny. There could be lots of Photoshop fun. I think a photo of Mickey Mouse could have wee Aaron’s face pasted on. Maybe I’ll post them to SXSWBlog anonymously.

Another funny thing about Aaron was that due to his age, he couldn’t check into the hotel room he’d booked online. Eventually he went to stay with Cory Doctorow at his hotel, but before that Min Jung took him up to her room to leave his bag, and while up there, she mixed some drinks from some booze she’d brought with her. Since she needed help carrying them, wee Aaron was recruited. She took a lot of flak for basically corrupting the lad.

I remember all of this with a rueful smile. A line from Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile resonated with me: “Despite his public presence, he was small and frail and shy and often sick, and people wanted to protect him. He was loved intensely, as a child is loved.” Even in his brief time among us at SxSW 2003, you could sense the tragic truth in those words.

I would post those Mickey Mouse Aaron Swartz Photoshopped pictures here, except of course that I never made them. For all of our joking around, I didn’t want to do anything to hurt his feelings. Or, despite the fact that he might not have even remembered meeting me, to make him think less of me.

Dumb Mobs, 2003

I’ve been shuffling some old papers around recently and came upon the following. It was written in March 2003 as preliminary research for a panel I wanted to moderate at SXSW 2004. I got interesting responses from Bruce Sterling and Clay Shirky, which I might include if there’s interest.

Dumb Mobs, or Keep Your Epinions to Yourself

It was only a matter of time. As more and more of us got online and started to join communities, we began to share our opinions. We became a marketer’s dream, allowing them to gather our most detailed demographic data every time we made a purchase or joined a Yahoo! group. Companies like Amazon began to let us write “reviews” of our purchases and recommend things to others. With a user base of several million individuals, these databases have begun to act as our critical voice whenever we consider an online (or offline) purchase. But how good is the information we receive this way? Will this sort of “mob ranking” replace the advice of trusted sources, and if not, how will these trusted sources establish themselves online? Will it become more difficult to find good information in the flood of online ratings? What kind of forces are at work here? These are the questions I propose to explore.

I was prompted to ask some of these questions during a panel on book publishing during this year’s South by Southwest Interactive conference. The moderator had been talking about how the marketing and promotion of books had moved online, mostly due to the web’s reach and the reduced costs involved. I began to think of the way that the critic’s role had also moved online, though not in the way I’d hoped. Sure, people still brought up the New York Times online and some of them even read book reviews there, but more and more sites were adding their own ratings engine and just letting everybody have at it. Something about this made me uncomfortable and I wanted to find out why.

I have participated in this kind of critical activity myself. At the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com), users can rate a film out of 10 and write their own reviews which are then added to the site. A bit of a film geek, I’ve endeavoured to rate every film I see, whether it’s a masterpiece, a flop, or just an entertaining bit of fluff. Upon reflection, I think that might be the only way these sites will work. Just as a professional critic must write reviews that fall across a wide spectrum of opinion, each voter on IMDb or Amazon or Epinions must establish the boundaries of their taste. In the case of product reviews, where taste is not an issue, the critic still must establish their standards. Without informing anyone of what we don’t like, sharing what we do like will be meaningless.

However, my experience with these sites shows a different situation. Some users vote only for things they do like. These people would have an average rating that is quite high. Others only point out things they hate, and so their average ratings are quite low. As individual voices, we might be wise to ignore them, but as part of an anonymous mob, they are invisible. We don’t even know how many of them there are. The larger question is how do we know we can trust the ratings presented by a site that doesn’t limit its membership in any way? Sure, it’s democratic, but when it comes to informed opinions, the mob surely doesn’t rule.

Since the machinery behind these databases is hidden to us, I wanted to ask a few experts how they work. Is one better than another? What kind of research is being carried on into making them more useful? Will it really ever be true for me that I will weigh the opinion of the New York Times’ book critic against the mob of user ratings at Amazon and find them equal?

Let’s take Epinions as an example. When I ask it to list dramatic movies in order of rating, I get a very long list of 5-star choices. But I’m almost certain that the people who gave Schindler’s List the top rating were not the same group that elevated Anne of Green Gables to the same lofty place. I can’t be sure, but I’m trusting my gut on this one. I would hazard a guess that most people who take the time to rate their purchases online are a self-selecting group whose opinions tend toward one end of the spectrum or the other.

The interesting thing is how much more influential these algorithms have become, and how opaque they remain. Google’s search algorithm is the big one, but recent stories about the “black box” that is Yelp are also relevant. I wonder if a discussion of these issues might still be interesting, or has the issue already been settled?

Is Asperger’s Contagious?

Forgive the possibly offensive title of this post. I’ll explain. I attended the first day of the Mesh 2008 conference today here in Toronto. This is a brand new conference for me, although it’s now in its third year. Although I have online and offline relationships of varying degrees with perhaps a dozen people who were attending, I still found the “networking” to be incredibly stressful. In fact, at lunch, I bailed completely and went off to eat on my own, despite the fact that there was a free catered lunch available at the MaRS Centre, the conference venue. It felt too much like the first day of high school in the school cafeteria for me. So you’ll know where I’m coming from when I talk about one of the sessions I attended.

CBC Radio’s Nora Young hosts a radio program called Spark! and her session was being taped for later broadcast as a show. She spoke with Microsoft researcher Bill Buxton on the subject “Does Location Matter?” which I thought would be about the benefits of telecommuting. It turned out to be mostly about the advances in video conferencing software and how to use it to work and socialize virtually with our colleagues and friends. It was fascinating stuff, but I was hoping the conversation would be broader.

We interact in a variety of ways with others online, but it’s mostly in the course of doing several other things at the same time. I can post a Twitter message, comment on a blog, and carry on an IM conversation all at the same time, possibly interacting with three different people, while at the same time writing in Microsoft Word or working with an image in Photoshop. I call these “micro-interactions” because they usually involve very little time, and are usually quite focussed on a particular subject or question. I’m reacting to a specific thing the other person has posted, for instance. These interactions have a defined purpose and they require little etiquette because online, interruptions can be dealt with later.

I’m finding more and more, though, that when I meet some of these same people offline, I’m finding the interactions more difficult. The idea of giving or getting “full attention” seems a bit overwhelming. I often fear that in offline situations, we won’t have enough conversation to keep things running smoothly. I also dread the awkwardness of introductions and departures, and knowing how long to just “hang around.” These are all non-issues with people I’ve met and known offline, because there is established etiquette. But I find that the more we interact online, the more awkward we get when we can’t interact the same way in the physical world. Among even good friends whom I’ve met online, our face-to-face interactions can sometimes feel awkward. “Just hanging out” can be difficult without some issue or topic to focus our energies toward.

Paul Collins tells a funny but illuminating story in his book Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism. He describes a speaking engagement at Microsoft in which the heads of more than half the audience are down over their laptops, a scene familiar to many conference speakers nowadays. When he asks what’s going on, his host tells him the audience members are watching the streaming video broadcast of the very talk they’re attending. It’s joked that many web geeks are probably mildly autistic, and that their legendary social awkwardness may actually be symptomatic of Asperger’s Syndrome, but it’s not really a joke.

The incidence of autism in general is rising rapidly; some statistics say it now affects one in 100 births. It’s interesting to me that the number is rising just as more and more of our social interactions are moving online. If I’m finding my own feelings and confidence around social interactions changing, I wonder how it will be for the generation of children who are growing up with the sort of “micro-interactions” I’ve described earlier?

Now all of this could just be unique to me. Maybe I’m just having a bad day socially. But I’m glad that it forced me to think about some of these issues. I’m very curious to see what others think about this. Feel free to comment below, or should you see me wandering around at Mesh tomorrow, by all means stop me. At least we’ll have a defined topic to discuss. 🙂

CaseCamp 7 Report

Tonight, I attended CaseCamp for the first time. Inspired by the original BarCamp “unconference,” CaseCamp is a marketing event where people present case studies and lessons learned, and the crowd can comment and ask questions. Pioneered right here in Toronto in 2006 by Eli Singer, the event is now in its seventh iteration, and has been wildly successful. Perhaps it’s become a victim of its own success.

Before I continue, I want to recognize all the hard work done by Eli and his group of volunteers and sponsors. But now that I’ve made that disclaimer, I’d have to say that I came away slightly disappointed this evening. Part of it is my own fault. Today was a very long day for me. I was up at 6:00am to travel to a financial services conference being held in the far northeast of the city. My journey by transit was an hour each way. I was only able to attend half the day because I had to get back to my office for a 90-minute conference call with a “social media platform” (ie. blog software) vendor, whose sales representative seemed incredibly unprepared, not to mention tacitly unconvinced by the product he was selling. So as I headed over to Circa night club, I was already feeling pretty exhausted. Nevertheless, navigating a crowd of close to 500 people in a night club setting where the music was turned way up was not conducive to any kind of networking for me. Call me old and crotchety, I don’t care.

The actual case studies were enjoyable, and I took some notes that I think will be useful. But the large setting (with haphazardly arranged plastic patio chairs) made it difficult to find a seat. And the size of the crowd made it difficult to hear all the questions. Overall, I’d divide my complaint into two:

  1. The venue was unsuitable: A night club might seem like a “cool” place to hold a business function, but not if the music drowns out attempts at conversation. As well, their inexperience putting on “conference” type events showed, with poorly-arranged seating.
  2. There were simply too many people: Close to 500 people is unmanageable for this type of event. Even had I been a bit less tired, I still don’t think I could have managed to introduce myself to many people in a crowd of that size. I recognized about a dozen names on the wiki signup page, and thought I’d have no trouble finding some people I knew. I was wrong.

I was hoping that CaseCamp would be similar to another “unconference” event that I attend as often as I can, Third Tuesday. Though more narrowly focused on public relations practitioners, the events (at least in Toronto) are held at a pub with a function room. The volume of music is much lower, the vibe is more laid back, and you actually sit around tables to listen to speakers. In this way, you can introduce yourself to the people around you first, and continue the conversations there afterward. Most importantly, the number of people hasn’t (so far) exceeded 100. I believe that this is a key issue. While online social networks can scale significantly, in the real world this isn’t possible. Groups larger than 100-150 become difficult to navigate. I certainly felt that way tonight.

What I’d like to see for the next CaseCamp is a “soft” cap of 150 attendees. After that, another group should be created and another venue found for the next 150. In this way, there is value for everyone. If that means featuring different cases at each, then so be it. Presenters could be rotated for the next event if necessary. As well, this makes finding venues a bit easier and certainly less expensive.

Part of tonight’s CaseCamp schedule was the afterparty, in which 5 DJs would spin tunes for the campers to dance to after all the case studies had been presented. People were invited to join from a few other events taking place tonight, such as StartupCamp and CopyCamp. I’m glad that the organizers extended the invitation to these others, and I’m sure they’re leveraging the very expensive rental of Circa night club, but honestly, the last thing I want to do at 9:00pm on a Tuesday night is dance, especially after a 15-hour day.

In conclusion, I think the exploding popularity of the event has even caught the organizers by surprise, and I’m sure that some of these thoughts might be crossing their minds as well. I very much enjoy the concept of CaseCamp and will look forward to seeing what the next one looks like. For any of you who were there tonight, first of all, sorry we didn’t get to talk! Secondly, what are some of your impressions of the evening?

Kevin Kelly: 1,000 True Fans

Kevin Kelly is at it again. And all I can do is link.

Borrowing some ideas from Chris Anderson‘s Long Tail concept, Kevin postulates that to make a decent living, an independent creator (musician, artist, writer, whatever) need only amass a thousand “true fans,” defined as people who will buy whatever the maker creates. The challenge, says Kelly, is that the artist has to maintain direct contact with all of these people or they will stop feeling “connected” to you. The good news is that the web has many tools (blogs, RSS feeds, podcasts) that allow creators to maintain direct connections with their fans.

It’s a compelling argument, and the discussion unfolding in the comments is enlightening, with people jumping in with examples of successes and failures. Go over and have a look. Then come back, if you’re a True Fan of mine!