The Internets

Jan 12

Some followup thoughts on my SOPA post

The best thing about writing for me is that it helps me figure out what I really think about things. And one of the very best things about doing it on the web is that others can collaborate, disagree, tweak, suggest, and generally help think through things even better. So after a couple of days of Friday’s SOPA post rolling around in my head, I think I have a tighter point of view now that I wanted to write down. (There were some great tweets, mails, comments & posts in reaction to what I wrote. Super thoughtful & useful.

Here are a few specific starting points, then I’ll get to my main point, which is that we (a technologically-oriented US, at least) are not well set up for the future in terms of how we evolve tech policy. Not a new thought, but I think the SOPA situation may be putting us in a worse spot.

But first 3 starting points and a personal observation:

1. SOPA+PIPA are awful bills. No way around it. They over-reach, they circumscribe civil liberties, and they mostly will not work. They shouldn’t pass, and we should do whatever we can to keep that from happening. They’re the latest in a long line of legislation that looks like this: reducing freedoms in a misguided attempt to protect us from a different big bad. They’re so numerous in US history they hardly need listing here.

2. Existing industries are always oriented towards self-preservation. No exception here. But there’s a funny thing that happens: the most progressive companies of today who become successful and dominant will become reactionary in the future, oriented themselves towards self-preservation. Same as it ever was. And you can see it even in the current situation — the companies who are most outspoken are the modern Internet companies: LinkedIn, Mozilla, Zynga, Google, etc etc. Mostly on the sidelines are the most progressive technology companies of the past decades, even including Apple. So this is not, fundamentally, a techie v content type of issue at all, but more of a progressive v conservative technology issue.

3. We do have existing laws and norms. A number of folks argued that content owners just need to accept that pirated goods are a viable alternative and need to learn how to compete with them. I’m wholly unpersuaded by that point of view. Or, rather, I believe we do have existing laws that govern how we behave. It’s pretty clear (to me at least) that content businesses will need to evolve, and many interesting ones already have. But that’s something for a lawful market to decide, not for anyone to thrust onto content owners & creators.

And then a personal observation: I was actually a little nervous writing about SOPA last week because of the tone of the conversation to date. I felt like it might actually provoke harsh negative reaction and somehow brand me as “SOPA-friendly” or against the web. That’s a weird thing for me to feel, as I think my web & open culture bona fides are pretty well established at this point between my work with Mozilla, PCF, Code for America, and now Tumblr, etc etc. That by itself tells me that there’s something wrong about how things are going.

Okay, so given all that as a context, here’s my main point: no matter what outcome we get to with respect to SOPA+PIPA, we’re in a bad spot going forward. 

I think much of the legitimate frustration on the Silicon Valley side of the fence is that there seems to be no way to have a meaningful conversation about this stuff in ways that we know to be productive. It’s happening at this point with some guy who doesn’t seem to understand technology having his staff & a bunch of lobbyists prepare a non-sensical bill and then try to jam it through Congress, without any real effort to understand what might actually work. (And, worse, it’s being done in a way that seems deliberately designed to misinform.) So it’s a bunch of backroom, captured discussion that has massive impact on how we live our lives — and it’s all completely opaque (at best).

The real thing that I’m worrying more and more about is not SOPA per se, although that’s a very large problem itself. The real problem that I see is that our government just isn’t set up to make meaningful technology policy decisions going forward. I think Larry Lessig would argue that that’s now true about all facets of modern life, but I think that with technology it’s significantly worse. We have massive interconnectedness of systems built on an extremely rapidly changing foundation of technology. But more than that, technology is now transforming our private and public lives so quickly that we can hardly make sense of any of it at a personal level, let alone a public policy level. And there seems to be no way for legislation to keep pace unless we change the discussion there from specific technologies instead to principles of how we want to build and evolve our society.

And I just don’t see how that kind of conversation can happen right now.

I see how to defeat SOPA, more or less. But it’s more lobbying, more rhetoric, more Capitol Hill influence. And I think that all of that stuff ultimately corrupts industries that use it. I know this is not a new objection, and I’m sure that there have been people in every industry forever who have made this point.

So I think most of what I wanted to write on Friday is this: I desperately hope we can (1) defeat SOPA and more importantly (2) figure out a way to have useful technology policy discussions that can inform both our legistatures and law enforcement agencies. This isn’t the last law that will be technically poor and will impinge on civil liberties. There will be more, and they’ll come up more and more frequently as increasing portions of our society get disoriented by and disrupted by new technology.

We shouldn’t rely on symmetric (and corrupting) lobbying efforts to make things better; we’ll just get more of the same crummy situation we’ve got.

What I think we really need to figure out is how to help our leadership in government act and think in a more agile way, informed by more of our citizenry. More like the web, in a lot of ways. (Ed Lee’s announcement of an SF partnership with Code for America is a start.)

Maybe impossible, a pipe dream. But that’s the target I think we should be setting for ourselves, not just defeating a crappy, misinformed bill.

Jan 12

What’s bothering me about the SOPA “discussion”

There are 3 things that have really been bothering me about how the SOPA/PIPA discussion has been going so far.

  1. it’s not a discussion at all — it’s people calling each other names.
  2. it’s highly likely to have a result that is unhelpful at best, and insanely destructive at worst
  3. we’re building a completely worthless/bad roadmap for how to deal with technology policy going forward, and it’s going to get worse

Let me be very clear: SOPA is a terrible law that should not be enacted under any circumstances. It’s broken technically and misguided from a policy point of view. It not only won’t accomplish what advocates want it to accomplish, but it also will create backbreaking burdens and barriers to entry for some of our most promising technology companies and cultural movements of the coming decade.

But also: content creators & owners have a legitimate beef with how their content can be appropriated and distributed so easily by rogue actors.

Here’s the conversation we should be having: content & technology should be very aligned. Hollywood and Silicon Valley (broadly speaking — I’m talking metaphorically here) both want the same things ultimately: easier and bigger ways to share and enjoy awesome content from all sources, in a way that’s economic for everyone involved.

What we should be talking about is how to get better alignment, how to build systems and content that is better for, you know, actual human beings to use and enjoy.

But that isn’t the conversation that’s happening (and I use the term “conversation” here very loosely, since it has characteristics more like a bunch of schoolyard name calling). The conversation that’s happening is going more like this:

– content: “you people are stealing our stuff. you’re thieves”

– techies: “we’re not stealing it. we’re just building great apps for users.”

– content: “you’re ignoring the problem and helping the thieves. you’re effectively pirates, so we’re going to shut everyone down.”

– techies: “you’re acting like jackbooted fascists, embracing censorship and your’e going to end everything that’s good about culture today.”

– content: “we’re trying to protect our content — you guys are pretending like there’s no problem, then getting rich off platforms that pillage our content.”

– techies: “you don’t understand how the Internet works — how do you even live life in the 21st century? dinosaurs.”

So that’s awesome. Then you throw Congress into the mix and hilarity ensues. Because if you’re looking for folks who really do not act like they want to understand the Internet, Capitol Hill is a pretty good place to start. And then this is all devolving into a fight of pirates versus creators. Of protectors-of-democracy versus fascists. Or whatever.

What we need to be talking about is where the actual infringement problem is happening (I’ve heard from folks that the vast majority of the problem is on the order of a few dozen syndicates overseas). And how we need to be thinking about copyright law — in an age where copies are the natural order of things, as opposed to previously, when it was harder to make copies. And what sorts of law enforcement resources we need to bring to bear to shut down the activity of these real malicious actors overseas. (At root, I’m persuaded that the current issues are really law enforcement issues – we need to figure out how to enforce the laws that are already on the books to protect IP, not create new ones.)

Acting like there’s no problem isn’t the answer — there is a legitimate IP issue here. But pressuring a behind-the-times and contributions-captive legislative body to enact overly intrusive and abusable laws is even worse, both economically and civically.

What’s extremely discouraging to me right now is that I don’t really see how we can have a nuanced, technically-informed, respectful discussion/debate/conversation/working relationship. I’m not convinced that Congress is at all the right body to be taking up these issues, and am 100% convinced that they don’t currently have the technical wherewithal to make informed decisions, in any event.

So what we’re left with is one group pushing their captive legislators for new, over-reaching laws and calling technologists names. And a group reacting to that by calling names back.

I think the best that we can hope for in this scenario is that the current bill will grind to a halt and nothing will change. But I think that can’t be where we aim for the future.

Because technology policy issues are going to come up again and again and again as time goes on. (Next up, undoubtedly, is another round of privacy legislation, and I would predict the name calling will be even more intense and even less productive.)

We’re mediating more of our lives than ever through new technologies that we barely understand as technologists, let alone consumers or civic leaders. We need to figure out ways to have meaningful discussions, to try out policies that may or may not work at first and iterate quickly on them, like we do with products themselves.

I don’t have any answers here, but wanted to write down what’s been bugging me, as I think we all need to think more about what we want our lives to look like in the future.

Nov 11

Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, by Douglas Coupland

A biography of Marshall McLuhan, one of the smartest media thinkers ever, written by Douglas Coupland, one of my very favorite authors, was going to be pretty much a no brainer for me to pick up and read and enjoy. And I really did, although I think this book probably is only for a particular type of nerd. (Pretty sure you know who you are.)

As you’d expect from Coupland & the subject, the style of the book is sort of meta. Bits & pieces about McLuhan, mixed up with other bits and pieces. I didn’t love the style, but I did find a bunch of the book thoughtful & provocative. And it really is amazing how clearly McLuhan could see the future — I think he & Neil Postman figured out decades ago things we’re only just now figuring out together as we all converge online.

Here’s what Coupland had to say to start the book:

Life becomes that strange experience in which you’re zooming along a freeway and suddenly realize that you haven’t paid any attention to driving for the last fifteen minutes, yet you’re still alive and didn’t crash. The voice inside your head has become a different voice. It used to be “you.” Now your voice is that of a perpetual nomad drifting along a melting landscape, living day to day, expecting everything and nothing. And this is why Marshall McLuhan is important, more so now than ever, because he saw this coming a long way off, and he saw the reasons for it. Those reasons were so new and so offbeat and came from such a wide array of sources that the man was ridiculed as a fraud or a clown or a hoax. But now that we’ve damaged time and our inner voices, we have to look at McLuhan and see what else he was saying, and maybe we’ll find out what’s coming next, because the one thing we can all agree on is that the future has never happened so quickly to so many people in such an extreme way, and we really need a voice to guide us. Marshall identified the illness and worked toward finding ways of dealing with it.

Amazing. But here’s the really odd bit:

And one must remember that Marshall arrived at these conclusions not by hanging around, say, NASA or IBM, but rather by studying arcane sixteenth-century Reformation pamphleteers, the writings of James Joyce, and Renaissance perspective drawings. He was a master of pattern recognition, the man who bangs a drum so large that it’s only beaten once every hundred years.

And any book like this would be incomplete without a little Canuckiana, so here’s a quote from McLuhan: “Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity.” Interestingly, I think that while that would be considered pejorative to most in the US, I don’t think that’s how he meant it.

One very strange fact that floored me: McLuhan’s brain was supplied with blood through not one but two arteries at the base of his skull. In case you’re not up to date on your human physiology, that’s not normal. Sometimes happens in cats. Very rarely in humans. But you have to think that it had a real effect on how he thought and lived (and probably how he died ultimately, since he had many small strokes and blackouts throughout his lifetime).

Anyway, fascinating.

And one last thought to leave you with by McLuhan himself: “Our ‘Age of Anxiety’ is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools– with yesterday’s concepts.”

I think we live in a complex, rapidly evolving, unfamiliar time now — so much — technology, mainly — feels like it’s changing so quickly that it’s hard to integrate all the changes in our lives, let alone to really understand them and their impact. It’s comforting to know that at least a few people felt the same way nearly 50 years ago.

Sep 11

Announcing Greylock’s Investment in ClearSlide

We’re very happy to be new investors in ClearSlide, a company that builds tools for sales & marketing professionals to communicate — it’s radically simpler than the cumbersome conference tools we use today, and blends synchronous and asynchronous tools to make it easier than ever for sales people to close business. They’ve been flying under the radar since starting a couple of years ago — except with their amazing & rapidly growing customer list, full of raving fans who say they can’t live without it now. This morning they’ve launched more publicly with a new site and an announcement of new funding led by us and Aydin Senkut from Felicis, who led their initial funding.

What’s special about their products today is how simple they are to operate: you can get on the phone and do a product demo or share slides in under a minute. It’s trivially easy to send information around to customers and be able to understand what they viewed themselves or forwarded along. And it closes the loop by allowing easy sharing of all materials and insight with your coworkers.

And it all works in a web browser, with just a URL. No special installs, no plug-ins needed. I’m not talking about just modern browsers, either: any browser, even including IE6. (I’ll wait for your gasps of amazement to die down on that one. Also, it’s the last time I’ll ever mention IE6 on my blog. :-))

They’ve really thought hard about how to build great tools for sales and marketing people, and it shows.

It was a very quick decision for us — at Greylock, we talk a lot about “our kind of founders” — and Al and Jim are definitely that. Here’s what I mean.

We’ve known Al for some time — he was the founding CTO of Evite — it’s a little hard to remember, at this distance, what a revelation that product was, but it changed everything — it let us interact with each other and collaborate in ways that had just been way too painful previously. And it’s influenced too many startups to count since then.

Well, he and Jim came in to give a presentation to us about they’d done, they jumped right into how their customers love it, how sales are rocketing up, what’s next — and slowly it dawned on me that they were using their own service to present! So I opened up my laptop to type in the URL & access code and bam!, I could see their slides — took maybe 3 seconds. I got sort of excited so pulled out my iPhone, then my iPad — everything just worked. And to Al & Jim’s credit, none of my futzing around with various electronics fazed them one bit. They just kept moving, unsurprised that there were no glitches in what they’d built.

And that’s part of what we mean when we say “our kind of founders” — they’re strong product and operating founders, who after changing the world once with Evite, just put their heads down and did the hard work of building something from scratch these past two years. No hype, no fanfare, just customers that love their products and working with them.

So we’re very excited to get involved in the next phase of their growth, and couldn’t be happier to be leading their funding round. Take a look.

Sep 11

Announcing our Investment in Tumblr

I’m super excited to announce Greylock’s investment in Tumblr.

We knew Tumblr was big when we started talking with David and John over the summer — over the last year or so, it’s practically exploded onto the scene — it seems like every piece of interesting content and expression you see today has been posted on someone’s Tumblr. The numbers back that up — last month the 30 million blogs on Tumblr generated 13 billion page views.

As we got to know the team there more, it became a more and more obvious decision for us to get involved. We love entrepreneurs who are product visionaries, who have a strong point of view and who want to build great products that affect hundreds of millions of users. David is clearly one of those — a founder with deep character and a desire to build a meaningful, enduring set of products and a company that users love.

What we didn’t know when we started, but learned as we went is that in addition to the ubiquity of Tumblr today, the engagement of users and posters and rebloggers is absolutely off the charts. Good content gets surfaced and spread incredibly rapidly — more quickly than any other network I’ve ever encountered. Lots of reasons for this incredible engagement — the team at Tumblr has done a wonderful job of figuring out some fundamental and novel avenues for self-expression. I’ve found so many interesting posts and perspectives on Tumblr that I never would have found without it — and it’s clear that that’s been the experience for millions of other users.

At Greylock, we’re always looking for the breakout companies — because we’ve each been involved in building and growing some of the companies with the broadest reach in history (Facebook, LinkedIn, Pandora, Mozilla, and more), we have a huge respect for founders and teams that have gotten to real scale like Tumblr has.

So Greylock and I are thrilled to be involved with Tumblr now, and we’re excited to help the company take the next steps forward into becoming an even more powerful platform for self-expression and discovery.

And you can find my own Tumblr at 🙂