Category: Microcasts (page 1 of 2)

Microcast #084 – Chris Dixon on RSS, crypto, and community ownership of the internet

I don’t often listen to the a16z podcast but for some reason I decided to listen to an episode about the past, present, and future of the internet while out for a long walk.

In it, Jonah Peretti, founder and CEO of Buzzfeed, interviews Chris Dixon, a partner at VC firm Andreessen Horowitz. A section of it really struck me, which I’d like to share with you now.

Microcast #084 – Chris Dixon on RSS, crypto, and community ownership of the internet

I’d be interested in your thoughts on it, too. Are you optimistic about the kind of approach that Dixon outlines?

Show notes

Microcast #083 – Ambiguous in Kuwait City

Some reflections on my digital literacies pre-conference workshop yesterday for AMICAL.

Show notes

Microcast #082 – Nodenoggin

This week, I’ve been delighted to be able to catch up with Adam Procter, academic, games designer, open advocate, and long-time supporter of Thought Shrapnel.

We discussed everything from the IndieWeb to his PhD project, with relevant links below!

Show notes

Microcast #081 – Anarchy, Federation, and the IndieWeb

Happy New Year! It’s good to be back.

This week’s microcast answers a question from John Johnston about federation and the IndieWeb. I also discuss anarchism and left-libertarianism, for good measure.

Show notes

Microcast #080 – Redecentralize and MozFest

This week’s microcast recaps my involvement in two events last weekend.

Show notes

Microcast #079 – information environments

This week’s microcast is about information environments, the difference between technical and ‘people’ skills, and sharing your experience.

Show notes

Microcast #078 — Values-based organisations

I’ve decided to post these microcasts, which I previously made available only through Patreon, here instead.

Microcasts focus on what I’ve been up to and thinking about, and also provide a way to answer questions from supporters and other readers/listeners!

This microcast covers ethics in decision-making for technology companies and (related!) some recent purchases I’ve made.

Show notes

Ensuring the sustainability of Thought Shrapnel

Over the last couple of months, after coming back from a hiatus over Lent, I’ve really poured my free time into Thought Shrapnel. My hope was that, by providing daily content, there would be a corresponding uptick in the number of people willing to become a supporter.

In fact, the opposite has happened, with almost 10% of supporters ending their backing of Thought Shrapnel over the past few weeks. Obviously, I’m doing something wrong here.

After some research and comparison with other creators, I think I’ve figured out what’s gone wrong:

Most people do not want more email. So if the only thing you have to offer them is, ‘Hey, subscribe to this newsletter and you’ll get some more email,’ that’s not that compelling. But if you can create a different value proposition where you can say, ‘Look, I’m creating the kind of writing that you can’t find anywhere else and I need you to be a part of this and to support this work if you value it,’ then I think that people get into that. And they want to get it four times a week, but it’s not necessarily the idea of getting it four times a week that is going to be the motivating factor.

Judd Legum

Nobody asked me to send them more email. Not one of the supporters asked for ‘exclusive access’ to articles a week before everyone else. I just assumed.

With Thought Shrapnel, it’s not the money that drives me. After hosting costs, etc. I give away most of what I receive to support other creators and worthy causes. Rather, it’s the exchange of energy that’s important to me. Committing to even $1/month is different to just hitting ‘like’ or ‘retweet’.

So, going forward, I’m going to try a different approach. For everything I publish:

  • Comments are on
  • Three different types of post each week
  • Everyone gets access at the same time

On Mondays I’ll publish an article-style post. On Wednesdays I’ll publish a post answering any questions that have come in, or a microcast. And then on Fridays I’ll publish a round-up post of interesting links.

I’m still aiming to share 30 links per week. The weekly newsletter will still be a digest of what’s gone on the open web. I just hope that trying things this way will both be more sustainable.

So, I have a couple of questions:

  1. Do you have any questions for me to answer in tomorrow’s post?
  2. Would you consider becoming a supporter of Thought Shrapnel?

Thanks in advance!

Paywalls and Patreon

I was part of the discussion that led to this post about Medium’s paywall. Richard Bartlett, whose work with Enspiral, Loomio, and decentralised organising I have huge respect for, has been experimenting with different options to support his work:

Last year I wrote about my dilemma: I have an ethical commitment to the commons, and I want to make a living from my writing. I want to publish all my creative work for free, and I am at my most creative when I have a reliable income. In that story I shared my long history of writing on the web, and my desire to free up time for more ambitious writing projects. Since then I have made a bunch of experiments with different ways of making money from my writing, including Patreon, the Medium Partner Program and LeanPub.

Patreon, which I’ve started to use for Thought Shrapnel, seems to be working out well for Bartlett, however:

To earn a full salary from Patreon, I would need many more supporters, requiring a marketing effort that starts to feel like begging. The gift economy is lovely in theory, especially because there’s no coercion: contributions are voluntary, and there is no punishment for readers who choose to not contribute. But when I interrogate these dynamics at a deeper level, I’m less satisifed.

In my point of view, social capital is subject to the same accumulative and alienating dynamics as financial capital. It’s even more dangerous in some senses, as the transactions are impossible to track, so it is much harder to redistribute accumulations of wealth.

Personally I redistribute 10% of my income to other Patreon creators who I think are doing more important and less fundable work than me: street poet David Merritt and anarchist authors William Gillis and Emmi Bevensee. At least this is a gesture to remind myself that the social capitalist is no more woke than the financial capitalist.

Frankly, as a producer, the clean transaction of buyer and seller just feels better to me. It feels good to produce something of value and have that value acknowledged by somebody purchasing it.

It’s a post worth reading in its entirety, and I don’t want to include any more than three quotations here. Suffice to say that Bartlett has found Medium’s paywall approach useful for discovery but actually find Leanpub the best option:

So, the trickle of income from Patreon feels nice, but I don’t want to self-promote more than I already am. Medium’s paywall is a promising income stream, but I risk losing the audience I care most about. So far it feels like publishing on LeanPub hits the sweet spot between revenue and ethics. So I’m considering that my next experiment could be to package up my existing blog posts into a kind of “best of” ebook that people can buy if they want to support my writing.

I’d suggest that a ‘paywall’ is always going to be problematic. The reason I allow people to support my work is that some people just have more spare money than other people (for whatever reason) and/or some people like supporting things they value financially.

At the moment, I release microcasts as a supporter-only perk. However, given that Patreon allows ‘early access’ another approach would be to set everything on a delay. I’m still, like Bartlett, weighing up all of this, but for now Patreon seems like a great option.

Source: Richard D. Bartlett

The New Octopus: going beyond managerial interventions for internet giants

This article in Logic magazine was brought to my attention by a recent issue of Ian O’Byrne’s excellent TL;DR newsletter. It’s a long read, focusing on the structural power of internet giants such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google.

The author, K. Sabeel Rahman, is an assistant professor of law at Brooklyn Law School and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. He uses historical analogues to make his points, while noting how different the current state of affairs is from a century ago.

As in the Progressive Era, technological revolutions have radically transformed our social, economic, and political life. Technology platforms, big data, AI—these are the modern infrastructures for today’s economy. And yet the question of what to do about technology is fraught, for these technological systems paradoxically evoke both bigness and diffusion: firms like Amazon and Alphabet and Apple are dominant, yet the internet and big data and AI are technologies that are by their very nature diffuse.

The problem, however, is not bigness per se. Even for Brandeisians, the central concern was power: the ability to arbitrarily influence the decisions and opportunities available to others. Such unchecked power represented a threat to liberty. Therefore, just as the power of the state had to be tamed through institutional checks and balances, so too did this private power have to be contested—controlled, held to account.

This emphasis on power and contestation, rather than literal bigness, helps clarify the ways in which technology’s particular relationship to scale poses a challenge to ideals of democracy, liberty, equality—and what to do about it.

I think this is the thing that concerns me most. Just as the banks were ‘too big to fail’ during the economic crisis and had to be bailed out by the taxpayer, so huge technology companies are increasingly playing that kind of role elsewhere in our society.

The problem of scale, then, has always been a problem of power and contestability. In both our political and our economic life, arbitrary power is a threat to liberty. The remedy is the institutionalization of checks and balances. But where political checks and balances take a common set of forms—elections, the separation of powers—checks and balances for private corporate power have proven trickier to implement.

These various mechanisms—regulatory oversight, antitrust laws, corporate governance, and the countervailing power of organized labor— together helped create a relatively tame, and economically dynamic, twentieth-century economy. But today, as technology creates new kinds of power and new kinds of scale, new variations on these strategies may be needed.

“Arbitrary power is a threat to liberty.” Absolutely, no matter whether the company holding that power has been problematic in the past, has a slogan promising not to do anything wrong, or is well-liked by the public.

We need more than regulatory oversight of such organisations because of how insidious their power can be — much like the image of Luks’ octopus that accompanies this and the original post.

Rahman explains three types of power held by large internet companies:

First, there is transmission power. This is the ability of a firm to control the flow of data or goods. Take Amazon: as a shipping and logistics infrastructure, it can be seen as directly analogous to the railroads of the nineteenth century, which enjoyed monopolized mastery over the circulation of people, information, and commodities. Amazon provides the literal conduits for commerce.

[…]

A second type of power arises from what we might think of as a gatekeeping power. Here, the issue is not necessarily that the firm controls the entire infrastructure of transmission, but rather that the firm controls the gateway to an otherwise decentralized and diffuse landscape.

This is one way to understand the Facebook News Feed, or Google Search. Google Search does not literally own and control the entire internet. But it is increasingly true that for most users, access to the internet is mediated through the gateway of Google Search or YouTube’s suggested videos. By controlling the point of entry, Google exercises outsized influence on the kinds of information and commerce that users can ultimately access—a form of control without complete ownership.

[…]

A third kind of power is scoring power, exercised by ratings systems, indices, and ranking databases. Increasingly, many business and public policy decisions are based on big data-enabled scoring systems. Thus employers will screen potential applicants for the likelihood that they may quit, be a problematic employee, or participate in criminal activity. Or judges will use predictive risk assessments to inform sentencing and bail decisions.

These scoring systems may seem objective and neutral, but they are built on data and analytics that bake into them existing patterns of racial, gender, and economic bias.

[…]

Each of these forms of power is infrastructural. Their impact grows as more and more goods and services are built atop a particular platform. They are also more subtle than explicit control: each of these types of power enable a firm to exercise tremendous influence over what might otherwise look like a decentralized and diffused system.

As I quote Adam Greenfield as saying in Microcast #021 (supporters only!) this infrastructural power is less obvious because of the immateriality of the world controlled by internet giants. We need more than managerial approaches to solving the problems faced by their power.

A more radical response, then, would be to impose structural restraints: limits on the structure of technology firms, their powers, and their business models, to forestall the dynamics that lead to the most troubling forms of infrastructural power in the first place.

One solution would be to convert some of these infrastructures into “public options”—publicly managed alternatives to private provision. Run by the state, these public versions could operate on equitable, inclusive, and nondiscriminatory principles. Public provision of these infrastructures would subject them to legal requirements for equal service and due process. Furthermore, supplying a public option would put competitive pressures on private providers.

[…]

We can also introduce structural limits on technologies with the goal of precluding dangerous concentrations of power. While much of the debate over big data and privacy has tended to emphasize the concerns of individuals, we might view a robust privacy regime as a kind of structural limit: if firms are precluded from collecting or using certain types of data, that limits the kinds of power they can exercise.

Some of this is already happening, thankfully, through structural limitations such as GDPR. I hope this is the first step in a more coordinated response to internet giants who increasingly have more impact on the day-to-day lives of citizens than their governments.

Moving fast and breaking things is inevitable in moments of change. The issue is which things we are willing to break—and how broken we are willing to let them become. Moving fast may not be worth it if it means breaking the things upon which democracy depends.

It’s a difficult balance. However, just as GDPR has put in place mechanisms to prevent the over-reaching of governments and of companies, I think we could think differently about perhaps organisations with non-profit status and community ownership that could provide some of the infrastructure being built by shareholder-owned organisations.

Having just finished reading Utopia for Realists, I definitely think the left needs to think bigger than it’s currently doing, and really push that Overton window.

Source: Logic magazine (via Ian O’Byrne)