[iDC] Interview with Scott Rosenberg

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Wed Nov 7 14:05:49 UTC 2007

Interview with Scott Rosenberg 
by Trebor Scholz

Have you ever worked on the collaborative creation of an ambitious piece
of software? If you did, then the book Dreaming in Code is for you.

Scott Rosenberg, the author, is the co-founder of Salon.com. While he is
not a programmer, he is known as a writer, reporter, and a long-term
observer of Silicon Valley. His book is "Dreaming Code, Two Dozen
Programmers. Three Years. 4,732 Bugs, And One Quest For Transcendent

Starting in 2003, for three years, Rosenberg attended meetings of the
development team for Chandler, an open source, peer-to-peer,
python-driven, personal information manager software. This project,
named after the mystery writer Raymond Chandler (no, not the character
in "Friends") was initiated by the Opensource Application Foundation, a
research center for non-profit application production. The project
leader is Mitch Kapor who is also the co-founder of the Electronic
Frontier Foundation and the creator of Lotus 1-2-3.

Scott Rosenberg was propelled to write this book driven by a compelling
yet simple question: Why is good software so hard to make?

Tracing the history of science and programming, Rosenberg proposes a
historical overview of failed software projects. Dreaming in Code spells
out the many examples when such projects run off the tracks, suddenly
costs too much or are simply not doable. A non-profit organization may
work for years on a piece of software only to find that Google just
released an equal or better solution. But even large-scale projects
supported by millions in government funding had to be abandoned, he
reminds us. When is a piece of software finished? How do you
define the functionality of the software? Rosenberg reports live from
the front of the religious wars fueled by disagreements about use of the
JAVA programming language versus C or C++, Python, or Ruby.

He analyzes that in the development process there are usually too many
goals: we are constantly asking software to do more and therefore he
recommends us to start small and incrementally add to a given software.
Dreaming in Code juxtaposes the traditional thinking that more people
cannot make software development faster (you can't have a new widget in
a week even if a thousand people work on it) to the practice of
distributed coding (e.g., Linux).

Trebor Scholz: You pointed out that after 2002, with the Silicon Valley
parking lots getting empty, many programmers took on non-profit
projects, which gave a remarkable push to that field. Could you give

Scott Rosenberg: I don't think I said "non-profit", but rather
open-source and/or labor-of-love projects. These labels are closely
connected but they each mean something a little different. We've got
for-profit companies in the open source world, of course, and then
sometimes your little "labor of love" can take off and turn into a
for-profit company.

Anyway, a good chunk of what we now think of as Web 2.0 emerged in
this fashion. If I recall correctly, Joshua Schachter's del.icio.us
was basically a labor of love at first. Matt Haughey's Metafilter,
which is now a thriving little business, was his own hobby project.
Wordpress, the blogging tool that I and now millions of other people
use, started as an open source project around then. And it followed
Movable Type, another great product that began in Ben and Mena Trott's
apartment, the story goes, and later turned into a VC-funded company.

I think that period -- from the first clear signals that the bubble
was going to bust in mid 2000 to the bottom of the cycle in 2002 or so
-- was immensely fertile and interesting precisely because there was
no obvious road to riches, and people were thrown back on their
passions. Not coincidentally, that was the era in which blogging
achieved its mass breakthrough.

TS: It is somewhat counterintuitive to see a large number of social
networking sites (e.g., Hi5, LinkedIn, MySpace, XING, WAYN) started up
in 2003, right after the dot com disaster. How did you perceive this
time period?

SR: My personal experience of that era (roughly 2002-3) was really
split down the center: on the one hand, at Salon, for which I was then
serving as managing editor, it was a very difficult time. We were
fighting for our life, and we made it, thanks to the support of our
users, who paid for subscriptions, and of some very committed
investors, who, I think, saw that user support and felt there was
long-term value.

On the other hand, despite the business doldrums, it was -- as I said
above -- a very fertile and creative time for people interested in
extending the Web in  new ways. I'm more focused on creative
contributions (what the Web industry calls "content") than social
networking, so I was paying more attention to companies like Flickr
and the blogging platforms than to the social networks. But I think
all these enterprises shared the same basic awareness: the dotcom bust
meant that a lot of companies went under and a lot of investors lost
significant sums of money, but it didn't mean that people were going
to stop using the incredibly versatile and fascinating Web platform
itself. In the media, particular in New York, the attitude was a kind
of relief -- thank god the Web is over, we can all crawl back into our
holes now! This was obviously nuts.  It was just a turn of the
business-cycle wheel that didn't actually have much bearing on the
creative uses of the technology. Those continued, and in some ways
they continued more robustly once the pressure for "monetization"

And of course we can't forget that these were the years of Google's
great growth, and the time during which Google figured out how to be a
fantastically profitable business on top of being a phenomenally
useful service. That, far more than the rise of the early SNSes, is
what I think marks the time period you're citing.

TS:  You have your ear on the technological ground in California for
many years. In the history of the Social Web, cultural projects are
often omitted. What is your perspective on the influence of culture on
the programmers of the most formative social platforms of our time?

SR: "Culture" is a big word. If by "culture" we mean the collective
sum of the creative expression of individuals, which for me is a
nicely neutral definition, then it's pretty hard to talk about its
influence on programmers -- if by "programmers" you mean the people
actually writing the code for social platforms like Friendster or
LinkedIn or Facebook or MySpace.

There's a whole semi-subterranean tradition of artists using digital
technology for their own ends. This easily predates the Web -- I first
encountered it during the CD-ROM era of the early '90s, but before
that there were people building Hypercard stacks, and before that I'm
sure there was something else. I don't think there's ever been much of
a dialogue or cross-fertilization between the people in that tradition
and the people who set out to program large-scale applications.
Programmers are most commonly engineers with a utilitarian bent.
Sometimes they get amused or diverted by creative use or misuse of
their tools, but they rarely think ahead about the cultural
opportunities their products open up. The best programmers at least
keep their eyes and ears open so that when users who are artists bend
an application in an usual direction they take note.

TS: Today, many people work two jobs. First, there is their day-job and
then they "work the network." Do you think that there will be a tipping
point at which people do feel exploited?

SR: In order to feel exploited, people need first to feel deceived.
Today, I think, most of the people who contribute material to social
networking sites (or any other kind of site) don't do so with any
expectation that they will, or ought to be, compensated financially
-- so they don't think, "Hey, that should be my money" when they hear
about big-ticket corporate deals. This does change at the edges, and
there are examples of "awakenings" to the feeling of being exploited
in the past (as with conflicts between management and volunteers at
AOL forums and between management and "guides" at About.com).

I think that when an ambitious person begins on the Web by pouring a
lot of his/her labor (and the content that labor produces)
into  relatively "closed" sites like Facebook or Myspace, they sooner
or later come to understand that they are building something that is
not truly theirs. These people will eventually start their own blogs,
register their own domains, and so on: they will make use of the more
level playing field the open Web affords. More casual users, on the
other hand, will probably be grateful for the convenience these
services provide, and not worry about the lost value of their labor,
because they're not contributing as much.

The dynamic here thus tends toward stratification, where the
sophisticated users flee, and the services become more of a
wasteland. We saw this happen in the mid-90s with site-building sites
like Geocities, Angelfire, and Tripod. In other words, I think it's
quite likely that the overall value of today's hot networking
services may well be at their peak now.

TS: Business on the Social Web is increasingly centralized, the high
number of recent mergers made that even more apparent. While its not a
surprise that the rich get more and more wealthy, which ethical
suggestions would you make to those who run large social milieus?

SR: The fundamentals of ethics aren't much different online from off,
though people get more easily confused in new media environments (and
unscrupulous operators have more of an opportunity to exploit that
confusion). If a business views its users as targets from whom value
can be extracted, it's going to act one way; if it views them as
customers to be served, it's going to act another; if it views them
as partners or equals in building a community, it will act another.
The way you handle issues like privacy, service, pricing and content
restrictions will inevitably flow from where on that relationship
spectrum you start. Some useful touchstones for ethics in this realm
are: (1) How easy is it for users to communicate with the business
(and get real answers)? (2) How easy is it for users to export their
contributions? (3) How carefully does the business protect access to
users' personal information?

TS: How do you interpret the "Facebook rebellion" in September 2006
when 740,000 users joined a FB group Students Against the Facebook
News Feed"? FB implemented an RSS feature that was perceived by users
as a breach of their privacy. The protest was an expression of a kind of
communal lock down; the exit costs for Facebookers were simply too high
people have all their friends on that platform and much content
(pictures, videos, text entries, diaries) and none of that can be easily
exported. The dominance of Orkut in Brazil and India has similar
reasons. What's your interpretation?

SR: I'm not immersed enough in Facebook's culture to comment
knowledgeably. I do know that history shows that any kind of lock-in
based on the difficulty of exporting content is subject to simple
erosion over time. For instance, one's Facebook network may be vital
to one's life in college, and no doubt many people will carry that on
into their post-college lives, and to the extent Facebook remains a
good service people will do that. But if they see that Facebook is
more and more constrained in one way or another; or if Facebook, for
instance, began to spam people with irrelevant commercial offers; or
if some other negatives arose, I think some percentage of users would
just say goodbye to the content they added to Facebook and move on to
greener pastures.

TS: Should users have full control over their own content?

SR: That's a great ideal. With a phrase like "full control" the devil
is always in the details. So the foundation of this sort of control
lies in easy exportability of your stuff. Open APIs also matter a
lot, because they make it possible for outside developers to add
tools for user control of content. (And note that Facebook's
open-but-inward-looking APIs, which let you add stuff *to* Facebook,
are very different from, for instance, Flickr's outward-looking open
APIs, which let you use Flickr all over the Web.) But true "full
control" is really only available to you on a Web site that you own
and operate. Once you're on someone else's site there's always a
trade-off between control and convenience -- often a very useful
trade-off, but a trade-off nonetheless.

TS: When advertising started in the United States in the 1880s it was
soon associated with the loyalty to and identification with a brand.
What has changed?

SR: I'm not an expert on marketing or branding. One of the things
that has always appealed to me about the Web is that it is
(relatively) less under the influence of mass-market brand power --
or at least it is easier to participate in the medium and stay away
from mass-market brands than it is to, for example, consume TV and do
the same.

For social networking services the nature and evolution of the brand
is signficantly out of the owners' control. (Orkut didn't set out to
be the big Brazilian network!) So there is a real difference there
from the world of packaged-goods branding.

TS: There is much lateral surveillance on the sociable web, which
makes it hard to trust a corporate platform with our data. Today,
Facebook is seen as a convenient place for employers to check
prospective employees and police uses it to conduct background checks.
Facebook (FB) claims full rights over uploaded content. FB outlines that
it pulls in information about users from other sources, based on their
profiles. Marketing is about entering a conversation in order to
influence it, how far can transparency go before it reaches corporate

SR: This is a huge topic, and the question is a little broad. I think
the most important thing for anyone to understand is that any
for-profit business's goal is to earn a profit. Public companies are
committed to the interests of shareholders; private companies are
committed to the interests of owners. That said, some companies
manage better than others at operating in a more transparent way. To
me, Craigslist is a pretty good example of a company that says,
"We're a for-profit business but we treat our customers as partners
in a community" -- and delivers on its promises, too. But it's not
perfectly transparent; I couldn't tell you, for instance, how much
money it's making. From what I understand, it's healthily profitable,
and yet I don't think its users feel exploited. So it's possible to
do that. But rare, and difficult!

TS: Given your extensive experience with Internet culture, do you
think that there could be an equivalent to public broadcasting in
social networking? And, what would it take to get a public,
independent social networking site  off the ground?

SR: My view is that it's less likely that we will end up with a
"public-broadcasting"-style nonprofit social network service than
that the whole notion of a "social networking service" as a closed
(or delineated) space on the Web will become outdated. The Internet
is a great network already. What we need -- and I'm enough of an
optimist to believe this can and will develop -- are open technical
protocols and platform technologies that anyone can use to
participate in social networking activities with anyone else, under
whatever sets of rules those individuals collectively choose to adopt.

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