Mashing Up a Commons

by Doc Searls

Is it possible that, for all our talk about The Commons, the Net doesn't have one yet? Or at least not a complete one?

That's what occurred to me last Sunday night, as Claus Dahl and I sat talking in a smoky Copenhagen bistro. The subject was public spaces. Europeans have a deep appreciation of them. Even in relatively chilly Denmark, there are plenty of outdoor cafés. Narrow streets in the older quarters join in public plazas as big as football fields. We also talked about how Americans seem to have a correspondingly elevated sense of private matters. Private enterprise, for example. Perhaps, Claus suggested, that's why the Net was commercialized first in the U.S.

I wondered out loud if we all couldn't benefit from the European sense of public life. "In Europe, we always do our urban planning around public spaces," Claus said. In the U.S. we have parks, I replied. But in America we are also inclined to produce intersections filled with traffic where Europeans might locate plazas filled with coffee stands, open-air restaurants, the occasional church bell, clanging on the hour.

We wondered what the opposite of privacy would be. Publicy? There's a Publicy blog; and says something is coming soon. Publicy, both say, is "the response from public institutions a private person is able to elicit". It adds, "The concept has been developed and actively researched by M. Veldboer since 1998." The Publicy blog has a helpful permalink to Technorati's blog finder, which finds no other sources about the subject. So far. (Top findings at Google's blogsearch are all misspellings of "publicly".) While I'm not sure who M. Veldboer is, the surname is Dutch, and I can't find any Veldboers amongst text that isn't Dutch or German. That's Euro enough for me.

It is peraps also an American Thing that email and blogging also both serve to equip the private side of things. The emails we send are personal: one-to-one, or one-to-many. Blogging is personal too, even when companies do it. Since blogs are published on the World Wide Web, they're public on the exposed side. But they are authored privately, and speak mostly in the voices of individuals.

Blogs can be powerful. Just ask Trent Lott, Howell Raines or Dan Rather. In aggregate, blogs may comprise a smart mob (or maybe just a mob, in some cases), but each still expresses the thoughts and expressions of a sovereign individual. This is not a small thing. As a veteran blogger, I appreciate the sense of sole authorship and control a blog provides for a writer. For writers like myself who participated in Usenet, Compuserve, AOL The Well and other public fora long before the Web came along, blogs prove to be much better instruments for moving ideas along. With blogs, our own writings are compiled in our own domains, where they can easily be referenced by other writers and found by search engines for as long as they stay in one place. With blogs there is no need to shout, and little temptation to troll or indulge in other bad manners when participating in a public polylogue. (Or less, at least, than we had in the old public fora.)

But many blogs together do not comprise a commons. Blogs are private and commons are public. Many blogs are like many silos. Together they are not a farm. Nor are they public parks or plazas.

This was made clear to me as I followed (as little as I could, given my bad luck with broadband connections in Denmark) the O'Reilly/CMP Web 2.0 service mark controversy. An enormous sum of pixels have been spilled on this subject, but here's one interesting bottom line to the whole thing: Tim O'Reilly apologized to Tom Raftery for "the organizational failure that led to them getting a legal letter rather than a simple email query or phone call.". And Tom Raftery apologized as well, saying "I should have dropped him an email first rather than posting on the blog", adding "Frankly, it didn't occur to me. Sorry Tim."

Why did it not occur to Tom to contact Tim before posting something on his blog? Tom writes, "I did the same thing to Tracy Sheridan after I had problems participating in her initial Waxxi interactive podcast with Robert Scoble and Shel Israel. I had her email address as well but I blogged. Should I have emailed her? Possibly but blogging has become my natural response to events like this." Then he adds, "Maybe I need to re-think how I respond, in the future."

Both Tom's and Tim's first posts on the matter were written less to each other than to the crowd. While their posts were public, the sources of those posts were private. They originated from a personal place outside the public one — even as the whole controversy played out in a public way. By "public space" I mean an environment where once senses the immediacy of other people: not just the person to whom one is talking, but everybody else as well. There is a combination of intimacy and exposure one can only get in a commons. Back-and-forth blogging has some of that, but not all of it.

So, Claus and I wondered, what if Tom had sensed a commons surrounding him, rather than the pulpit of his own blog? What if he had some easy means, other than emailing or blogging, to contact Tim or the O'Reilly conference people, to learn more about what was going on, and to work things out? What if Tom's purpose was to visit, in a public way, the problems with owning anything largely perceived as public — such as the term "Web 2.0" — without bringing on the storm of rebuke that fell against O'Reilly from bloggers in this case? Or what if O'Reilly wanted to do the same? Are the means there? Do we have the public spaces where this might happen? It may seem like we do, but I don't think so.

Email and blogging are steps in that direction, but they don't arrive there.

I've said before that blogging is a way of sending emails that go "cc:world". My point has always been about blogging's ease of use. When people tell me they don't have time to blog, I ask them if they have time to email. When they say yes, I point out that there's little difference between the two, at least in terms of time commitments.

But now I think there is also another deep similarity: both are more personal than public. And we need something that's more public. Maybe several things. Because in the absence of a commons infrastructure, the personal crowds out the public. This is not a bad thing. It's just not good when it's the only thing.

For human beings, the sense of personal space is easily enlarged. To illustrate, consider the differences between our behaviors as drivers and our behaviors as pedestrians. We'll yell invective at other drivers in traffic that we'd never yell at other individuals in a theater queue. That's because when we drive a car, we become the car. Our senses extend out to the peripheries of the car itself. Its hardware becomes "my fender" and "my tires" and "my bumpers". Pilots feel the same way about the wings and engines of the planes they fly. Michael Polany calls the process of enlarged embodiment "indwelling". When we screw sheetrock to a wood frame, our screwdriver (or our drill with a screwdriver bit) becomes an extension of ourselves. Our selves are enlarged by our expertise at being larger, and more powerful, than our biological bodies alone. George Lakoff takes this another step, saying all knowledge and reasoning are metaphorical, and that our root metaphors for everything are provided our own bodies and our experience as embodied creatures in the world. In all human moral systems, for example, "up" and "light" mean "good" while "down" and "dark" mean "bad". This is because we are diurnal (daytime) creatures that walk upright. If, like bats, we few out from the roofs of caves at night, we might say down is good and light is bad.

As personal spaces go, blogs are car-like. They are an enlarged structure around our virtual bodily selves. To some degree (less than in a car, but more than in a fully public space), blogs can combine the sense of separateness and power. (Syndication radically enlarged the publishing power of every blogger. Thanks to syndicated subject searches, one can participate in buzz just by blogging quotably about that buzz's subject, regardless of the "size" of one's blog.)

Against corporate, political and media gigantism, blogs are a great equalizer. Together we comprise what Glenn Reynolds calls An Army of Davids. I would be surprised if Tom Raftery didn't feel a bit like David when he got a note from a lawyer representing (not one but) two media Goliaths. I'll bet the same feeling came to many of the other bloggers who weighed in on the topic. Tim, naturally, was outraged, He wrote, "The flap about the Web 2.0 Conference trademark has shaken my faith in the collective intelligence of the blogosphere. Of all the hundreds of people who commented on this issue, only a few touched base to do a bit of fact checking."

Did Tom not call or write to Tim first because there isn't an obvious first-choice place to do that in the Net's commons? That question brings to mind what Craig Burton wrote five years ago, in early 2001:

We are in a deep state of Web Noir --a technological Dark Age obscured by the apparent brilliance of the Internet, as we know it. The dark -- that noir -- is what we don't see, what we don't know because it doesn't yet exist.

What's missing is technology infrastructure. I'm not talking about physical infrastructure here. I'm talking about the logical infrastructure where both humans and devices live and do their work. It's the way we're all connected, and what we can do with --and through -- those connections. The real world of people and devices changes constantly. Natures, functions, identities, relationships all change. Yet we have few if any truly useful ways to support that dynamism beyond the store & forward facilities of Web and email servers running over a worldwide TCP/IP network. While what we have is a miracle-grade advance over what we knew a decade ago, it’s still profoundly limited. In fact, it’s so limited that in some cases the best we can do is leverage the worst from bygone ages.

In fact Claus Dahl has something in mind -- a nice piece of hitherto missing infrastructure. I don't want to say what it is yet, because he's not ready to talk about it. But the moment he began talking about his ideas, I realized that the Net's commons is missing something that might have prevented a lot of unhappiness around this Web 2.0 flap. Plus countless other misunderstandings.

Claus and I had both just come from the latest Reboot conference, titled . Although Reboot is a tech conference, it's more about ideas and insights than about what's new and cool. Right before Reboot I spoke at Samtalerne, a one-day conference about conversation ("samtalerne" means something similar in Danish). Two weeks from now I'll be at another conference where conversation and ideas are central: Identity Mashup, put on by the Berkman Center, at Harvard Law School.

So I have some infrastructure-building ideas for the commons that I want to explore there and beyond. I'd like to engage the folks at Berkman, my colleagues in the Identity Gang, friends new and old in the Linux, free software and open source communities — and anybody else who is interested. As briefly as I can put them, here they are --

First, think of markets as places where three things happen:

  1. Transactions
  2. Conversations
  3. Relationships

Since the dawn of the Industrial Age, or at least since the advent of modern economics, we have regarded markets mostly in terms of transaction. Value usually, if not always, reduces to price. But what about the other activities that happen in a marketplace — or that a marketplace supports? Even if we insist that they serve only to determine a price in a transaction, is the "bottom line" all that matters? Does anybody go into business looking only to make a profit? Does a bicycle maker wish only to "bring maximum returns to shareholders"? If not, what convivial kinds of conversations and relationships do markets support? More importantly, what difference does the Internet make? I think that difference is huge.

"Markets are conversations" was the first thesis of The Cluetrain Manifesto, written in 1999 by (Berkman fellow) David Weinberger, Chris Locke, Rick Levine and myself . That phrase has since become so common that a search for it among texts of all books on Amazon brings up almost eight thousand pages with it.

Yet, after Cluetrain came out as a book in early 2000, we received feedback that pointed to the inadequacies of conversations as a synonym for markets. Readers familiar with public markets in non-industrialized economies said markets were also relationships. Nigerian pastor Sayo Ajiboye told me that relationships were in fact the primary form of association supported in what he called "natural" markets. For evidence of their role in economies, he gave the example of a conversation between a garment vendor and a customer who knew a great deal about textiles. In the course of that conversation, the two learn much from each other, and develop something of a relationship. By the end of that conversation, the buyer may find herself "bargaining" for a higher price, while the seller "bargains" for a lower one. Fr. Sean Olaoire, an Irish priest who spent many years living in rural African villages, told me the same thing. He added that, in markets like these, where there are name-brand stores and no industrial-grade value chains, there are no fixed prices. "You can only arrive at a price inside a conversation." Add relationship and the price changes. Value is located elsewhere. A clue to that location comes from Pastor Ajiboye, who told me about an old Nigerian saying: "Life is a marketplace".

How much more life — or just economic activity — would the Net support if we built out the infrastructure for it?

Second, the matter of intention needs full respect as we build out an understanding of markets in the fully networked world.

I've written about this in The Intention Economy, at Linux Journal. There I said "The Intention Economy is about buyers finding sellers, not sellers finding (or 'capturing') buyers." Specifically, it's about what happens when marketing's job (if it has one at all) is done, and the customer is ready to buy. Why should the customer do all the work of finding the seller who has exactly what he wants? Wouldn't it be good to have a market infrastructure where the customer notifies the whole market of her readiness to buy precisely X, preferably at Y price? Don Marti calls the imaginary instrument for this "an upside-down buyer's guide". Here is the ideal, as I put it at that last link:

The Intention Economy is built around truly open markets, not a collection of silos. In The Intention Economy, customers don't have to fly from silo to silo, like a bees from flower to flower, collecting deal info (and unavoidable hype) like so much pollen. In The Intention Economy, the buyer notifies the market of the intent to buy, and sellers compete for the buyer's purchase. Simple as that

If we build an Intention Economy, I believe we will see an explosion of new business. Building this infrastructure, I believe, will utterly disrupt marketing as we know it, and finally give customers powers they've lacked through the entire Industrial Age -- powers that are required to end Web Noir and create a renaissance for business and culture.

Third, I believe this infrastructure can (not "must", but can) grow out of the efforts being made now among the community of "user-centric", "independent", "metasystem" and "identity 2.0" developers, many of which will be well-represented at the Identity Mashup.

Fourth, I believe relationships in an Intention economy will require a legal framework similar in some ways to the one Creative Commons has provided for Net-native creative artists and the industries now starting to grow around them. Creative Commons licenses are expressions, after all, of intentions by artists in a place — the Internet — where users of that art have a great deal of choice and power. Moderating and utilizing that power requires agreements (which are forms of relationships). Creative Commons licenses provide frameworks for these as well.

Since Creative Commons grew out of work by Larry Lessig and his colleagues at Berkman and Harvard Law, I'm especially interested in seeing how any of these ideas can be, well, mashed up.

Again, these are ideas. The Internet is still new. As Craig Burton has often pointed out, the Net still lacks many of the infrastructural features (file, print, directory, etc.) that were standard on a Novell LAN twenty years ago. (For example, wouldn't it be cool if I could print something on your printer, or vice versa? NetWare had that. The Net doesn't. At least not in a way most of us are familiar with.)

Yet work on individual-centered identity technologies and standards is moving very fast. Given the speed they are moving, and the time left before the Identity Mashup starts (Monday, June 19), now seems like a good time to start talking about them.

The original version of this essay appeared in the June 8 edition of Doc Searls' SuitWatch newsletter.