Homo homini rodentius est

Marilyn 666

East Village, NYC 2/10/2008 2:49pm.

Hubris 2.0

Ever since the economy started to tank there’s been a lot of blather online about whether the so-called Web 2.0 era is coming to an end. To the extent that “Web 2.0” is defined as a business model that relies on user-generated content to drive high-margin profits the answer is clearly “no” – all one has to do is look at the burgeoning growth of Facebook and Twitter to see there is still gold left in them ‘thar hills (though, in fact, neither Facebook nor Twitter have figured out yet how to mine that gold…). The poster child for successful Web 2.0 business is probably craigslist (they prefer the lower case c don’t you know). Last year CNet published [estimates] that the 30 person company generated $80 million in revenue – which works out to an astonishing $2.7 million per employee – and could well double that amount this year. Or maybe not. That estimate was made before craigslist came under scrutiny by various attorneys general and the dreaded mainstream media for their lax oversight of some of the shadier content on their site(s).

Watching the initial [response] of craigslist owner Craig Newmark and CEO Jim Buckmaster to the shitstorm that erupted following the arrest of the “Craigslist Killer" (who used the site’s prostitution ads to connect with his victims) was remarkable. Cloistered away in their little Silicon Valley bubble they clearly hadn’t a clue about how to manage the scrutiny of meatspace media and ambitious law enforcement officials looking to score. At first they refused flatly to make changes to the way they did business, falling back on the Web 2.0 mantra that the craigslist community would police itself (after all, users provide the content for free, why shouldn’t they also provide the editing for free?). Then, when it became clear that Newmark & Co. were heading to court and maybe to jail on fraud charges, they acquiesced and agreed to change the way they manage listings for adult services – including hiring additional staff to screen out illegal material.

But at least one AG is not satisfied and has threatened to initiate criminal action against craigslist if they don’t remove even more objectionable material from their site by this Friday. Today, Buckmaster [responded] to the Attorney General of South Carolina in a blog post (of course) and just when I thought they couldn’t be more clueless about how to handle this PR disaster he surprised me. Instead of doing what any mature company would do in the face of aggressive policing (think Microsoft and the European Commission…), i.e., aiming to get the moral high ground by swiftly agreeing to meet or exceed demands for cleaning up their sites, Buckmaster demands an apology from the Attorney General, challenges the AG to prosecute South Carolina newspapers that also run off-color ads (and suggesting that he won’t because of cynical self-interest) and offers what I’ll call the “me-too” defense: craigslist shouldn’t be singled out for abetting indecency because all the other kids in the playground are doing it too! The PR trainwreck thunders on.

Sensing that this has the potential to tame the Web 2.0 golden goose that drives so much revenue with so little managerial oversight and cost, some of the New Media machers are weighing in with support: Mike Arrington at [TechCrunch] urges Buckmaster to “Stand firm. Don’t back down. In fact, just turn off the South Carolina site entirely and ban IPs from that state. Forever. And if they press criminal charges, fight it with everything you have.” Then, with a little less bravado, “And if you do end up in jail, don’t worry. I promise to visit at least once a month, even though it will be in South Carolina.”

New Media gadfly Jeff Jarvis takes time out from dancing on the graves of newspaper journalists to [offer], “And so, once again, the internet becomes a threat to the control and power of an elite and they are exploiting craiglist – and the murderer who used it – to reassert their control. But it has the marks of a witchhunt.” Jarvis doesn’t seem to get that the “elite” is law enforcement and the issue is violations of local decency laws. Minor matter.

Perhaps one of Buckmaster’s friends (does he have friends?) could suggest that he take some of that huge profit he makes from the site and hire a decent flack. And a lawyer.

Star Trek Babies

Star Trek Babies
© Paramount Pictures
"Yo, Dad, can I borrow the keys to the Enterprise?" Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Kirk (Chris Pine) aim to fill some big shoes.

At one point during the new Star Trek movie it occurred to me that perhaps the most amazing thing about it was the fact that I was seeing it at all. Forty years after the original TV series went off the air and thirty years after the first film version was released here I was again watching the redoubtable starship Enterprise fly across another screen. It was interesting, though, to note how the starship was represented here compared to its first big screen appearance back in 1979. Back then, before Hollywood had hit on the formula for milking a property to death, it had taken ten years to sort out the production path for the theatrical version. When it finally appeared it was practically a religious experience for faithful fans who had invested so much in the characters and ideas from the series. One of their rewards came in their first view of the Enterprise after the ten year drought: director Robert Wise spent a full five minutes of screen time displaying the new ship, the camera caressing every detail of the model starship with clear fetishistic delight. In the new film by director JJ Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman there is no such doting on the venerable spaceship; views of the Enterprise are for the most part reduced to establishing shots taken from a great distance in space or extreme close ups of firing weapons. Similarly, internal shots are restricted to scenes filmed on a stark overlit bridge or brief scenes in an engineering section that consists oddly of industrial-looking hydraulic tubes and steel scaffolding. The Enterprise, itself a major presence throughout the Star Trek saga, is here relegated to mere backdrop, a somewhat haphazardly designed set upon which the interpersonal dramas of the main characters play out.

I think that’s significant because it indicates where the priorities for the film makers lie and what they do and don’t understand about a cultural inheritance of which they are the latest custodians.

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Pirates and Philistines

Twitter gets popular

A couple of events occurred last week that might have seemed completely unconnected but were, I think, flip sides of the same coin: in the first case, a Swedish court convicted the owners of the Pirate Bay file sharing site of copyright violations involving facilitation of theft, sentencing them to fines and prison time, and, in the second case, Oprah devoted valuable on-air time to the Twitter phenomenon, introducing her legions of fans to the service and calling out Ashton Kutcher as the first Twitter user to gain over 1 million followers. What ties these apparently disparate events together is the fact that they demonstrate in unique ways the mainstreaming of the internet as a medium and its changing character(s).

Piracy 2.0

As an invention of technology, it makes perfect sense that the early proponents of the internet were members of the “technorati” – the geeky folk who build and fund tech start ups and those who buzz around them. Back in the 90’s as the commercial internet was just taking off, one could read one after another manifesto from these folks proclaiming the nascent medium a digital Valhalla, revolutionary in its potential. A good example was [“Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age”] in which futurist Alvin Toffler, venture capitalist Esther Dyson and others attempted to spell out the game-changing nature of this new technology and what was needed to foster it:

To start with, liberation – from Second Wave rules, regulations, taxes and laws laid in place to serve the smokestack barons and bureaucrats of the past. Next, of course, must come the creation – the creation of a new civilization, founded in the eternal truths of the American Idea.

Likening themselves to frontier settlers, they wanted complete freedom to reinvent commerce on the web any way they saw fit. Such freedom would, of course, lead to the unfettered creation of enormous wealth and that is exactly what happened (well mostly for well-connected technocrats, anyway). But the lack of oversight also led to a Wild West ecosystem online where hordes of thieves committed untold abuses of intellectual property. Sadly, some who should know better even sought to undermine claims of intellectual property by basically implying the [inevitability of theft] and [apologizing] for it under the rubric of “free culture”.

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Lost Bird

Sixth Avenue and 28th Street, 9:32am

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