Here’s the post I wrote on a dinner I attended while at Davos for their forum blog: Online we can act as a fifth estate.
The common thread that kept coming up at a dinner, and discussions centred around the idea of “online power”, was equality of access. Before the widespread rise of the Internet and easy publishing tools, influence was largely in the hands of those who could reach the widest audience, the people with printing presses or access to a wide audience on television or radio, all one-way mediums that concentrated power in the hands of the few.
Now an audience of more than 1 billion people is only a click away from every voice online, and remarkable stories and content can gain flash audiences as people share via social networks, blogs and e-mail. This radically equalizes the power relationship between, say, a blogger, and a multibillion dollar corporation.
I heard stories of companies such as Dell shifting the direction of their products in response to online outcry started by a single blog post, authors who have millions of followers on Twitter and Facebook and able to speak to their audiences directly for the first time, a Twitter hashtag (#f***washington) becoming a rallying cry for hundreds of thousands of frustrated citizens, and how a blackout of Wikipedia to protest proposed SOPA/PIPA legislation overloaded phone systems in Congress. I shared how a community of volunteers around the world collaborated on Open Source software (WordPress) that eventually overtook all its proprietary competitors.
All of these stories shared a David and Goliath character – a seemingly unmovable force swayed by a single voice that quickly multiplies online, but they also gave me pause. We spoke about this multiplying of online voices being used for things we’d all generally agree were “good”, but that was probably largely a function of the people sharing the stories and our similar world views. You could easily imagine a viral story spreading online with malicious intent, and just as many if not more examples of untrue rumours spreading at the speed of Twitter. One table shared a fictional account of a world where online voting was ubiquitous in a country, but it had the unintended side-effect of making voter coercion easier because you could see how someone voted.
There is no moderator or ombudsman online, and while the transparency of the web usually means that information is self-correcting, we still have to keep in mind the responsibility each of us carries when the power of the press is at our fingertips and in our pockets.
I am an optimist, and I believe that people are inherently good and that if you give everyone a voice and freedom of expression, the truth and the good will outweigh the bad. So, on the whole, I think the power that online distribution confers is a positive thing for society. Online we can act as a fifth estate.
I had a really wonderful time at the Forum, it was a really unique experience.
One of my favorite photographers, Neil Leifer, has a beautiful new WordPress.com-powered site. For the past few years I’ve had this photo in my office:
The story behind it is pretty interesting, taken from this interview with Larry Berman and Chris Maher:
Chris/Larry: It’s actually quite a different question to say what are your favorites verses what do you feel are your best photographs.
Neil: I know, and my best picture ever, in my opinion, is my Ali Cleveland Williams picture that I shot from overhead. I don’t usually hang my own photos, I collect other people’s pictures. But that picture’s been hanging in my living room as long as I can remember. I have a 40×40 print of it which is hung in a diamond shape with Williams at the top. That’s the guy that’s on the canvas on his back.
Chris/Larry: It’s remarkably abstract for a sports picture.
Neil: I think it’s the only picture in my career that there’s nothing I would do different with it. You look at pictures and think that you can always improve them no matter how successful the shoot is. Part of what motivates you to go on to the next shoot is every once in a while you get a picture, whether it’s the cover of the magazine or an inside spread, that’s as good as you think you could have made it. And then a week later you see a couple of things that you could improve slightly. A month later you might see a few more things. It doesn’t diminish the quality of that picture. It simply means that there’s always room for improvement.
Chris/Larry: You’re learning for the future?
Neil: Exactly. It’s sort of what motivates you to go on. If I were to do the Cleveland Williams Ali picture again, I would do it exactly the same. And more important is that no one will ever do it better because it can’t be done like that anymore. Today the ring is different and the fighters dress in multi colored outfits like wrestlers. Back then the champ wore white and the challenger wore black. Today, when you look down at the ring from above, you see the Budweiser Beer logo in the center and around it is the network logo that’s televising the fight. Whether it’s Showtime or HBO, they have their logo two or three times on the canvas. The logo of promoter of the fight, Don King Presents, is also visible. That’s why that picture couldn’t be taken today. So not only did the picture work out better than any I’ve ever taken, but it’s one that’ll never be taken again.
Chris/Larry: Where are you in this picture?
Neil: I’m at 11:00 o’clock, as I remember it. I’m in a blue shirt leaning on the canvas with a camera in each hand.
It’s always an honor to have a great creator make their home on the web with WordPress.
As Liz Gannes wrote in AllThingsD, Automattic has acquired Simplenote, the coolest notes service around which you can get on the iTunes app store or for a variety of other platforms, and Simperium, which if you’re a developer you should watch the video on their homepage and see how the technology can make what you’re doing even cooler. You can read our official announcements on the Simperium blog and the Simplenote blog, which also includes some future plans. I’ve been a daily user and fan of the service for a while now, and I’m looking forward to how we can use Simperium across WP.com.
I’m attending the World Economic Forum in Davos for the first time, if you’ll be there I’d love to meet up and of course open to any tips you have about the event, it’s very intimidating to attend a first-timer. Also: Switzerland is beautiful! Also my first time in the country.
A week ago I rang in my twenty-ninth birthday and entered that twilight zone prior to thirty. It was an exciting day, I got to fly a plane, dogfight another, and do some aerobatics like a tumble, which was pretty much the coolest thing ever. Unusually for me, I managed to stay away from my computer the entire weekend, instead spending time eating, drinking, and dancing with a few friends who were also in Las Vegas. I came back online to some very sweet birthday blogs (thank you Lorelle, Austin, and John!) and of course a number of nice messages on Facebook and Twitter. All in all, extremely pleasant.
I travelled more this year than I ever have before, covering 261,077 miles in 292 days away from San Francisco (79 cities, 11 countries).
From the outside my life sometimes can appear crazy, and my 20s have been atypical in many ways, but one of the things I appreciate the most about this past year is that things have been getting less hectic overall. Much of this I attribute technology which I’ve finally gotten to a point where the majority of it in my life serves to allow me to spend doing things I love, like writing, designing, coding, learning, and less time on infrastructure or overhead.
The most interesting thing about twenty-nine so far is I’ve been getting lots of tips from people on how to end my 20s, which usually fall under “go out with a bang” from people currently in their 20s and “don’t worry it just gets better from here” from people in their 30s.
My focus this year will be on simplification and streamlining. As in many years past, I find I’m the most balanced when I take time every day to read, especially in the morning, and as an additional resolution this year I’m trying to watch a film every week recommended by friends. (So far have seen My Fair Lady, Casablanca, King Corn, and American President.)
The new reader for WordPress.com is live and I’m really proud of the product and the team.