I originally published this on my blog on February 19, 2007. It was the end of my first week as Director of Product Strategy at Obvious. Obvious was the company Ev Williams had founded to both house the podcasting platform Odeo and also work on new products. I’d joined Obvious because I wanted to worked with Ev again (he was my boss at Google and Blogger.) And because I was in love with Obvious’s second product—Twitter—that had launched the previous year. A couple months after I started at Obvious we agreed to spin Twitter into its own company and eight of us became the first employees.
What I think about when I reread this post is how ecstatic I was to be working with people who believed in the mission. Specifically, the mission of turning people on to the web as an engine of self-expression. Believing this at Google during the time I was there (2003–2006) led to a lot of self-doubt because there were so few believers. Despite having the best web technologists on the planet, most Googlers believed the web was where you went to get information out; not put anything in. On the Day of the Google IPO we had a meeting with the Google Founders in which they asked us: “What can you do to make Blogger bigger than the New York Times.” It was the sort of “hairy audacious goals” question the Founders liked to ask to encourage teams to think BIG. But if your favorite part of Blogger was the weird stuff (as it was for me) it was also a bit confusing. Plus, we already had more pageviews than the NYT.
My point is I wrote this to myself to work through why I was excited about in my new job. Because I was exiting a period of doubt; doubts about whether any of it mattered.
February 19, 2007: I was having the sort of existential conversation you can only have at your 3rd bar stop of the evening and right before closing time.
The subject was, generally, does working on the web truly matter. Like, really in the grand scheme of things where we’re all gonna die, be flooded by melted glaciers or ultimately blinked out in the heat death of the universe.
My answer is a strong Yes. I believe this because I believe that the Web is the most important human achievement of our lifetime. Not because of its ability to quickly deliver stock quotes, horoscopes and news, but because of what we can create with it. The web allows us to see the world from previously obscured vantage points, listen to voices that were previously too remote to hear.
In a nutshell, the web is important because it allows people to more easily answer the question “How do you feel?”
While I believe that more content and more viewpoints are good in and of themselves, they also point to a more transcendent purpose. As the web makes accessible this flood of perception, we are able to more fully realize that our own individual view of things is essentially arbitrary. By this I mean that while the particular way I see the world can never be challenged for its primacy in my understanding of things, I can grow to understand that it is a biological quick that causes me to experience things this way.
By realizing this we are able to more completely understand one another, regardless of location or background. And this sort of understanding is the most important factor that will allow us, as humans, to tackle global problems and achieve unimaginable goals.
And then I threw in some stuff about how I had an hallucination that suggested to me that human beings have evolved to be the sense organs of a planet-wide organism. Like I said, it was late.
In any case, I was rather satisfied with this oratory and it seemed to resonate with my fellow webgeek companions. I was so satisfied that I repeated it a few nights later to a different group of friends. The context was slightly different on this second, later occasion. On one hand, I was trying to explain why I was excited about my new job. And on the other, I was trying to find out why this second group of friends (while technologically-inclined) weren’t really into the web at all as a medium of self-expression.
In my experience as a part-time blog evangelist, I’ve frequently run into the comment from non-bloggers that “Well, that all seems interesting but it’s not for me. I just don’t have anything to say.” In the past, this response has both saddened and angered me. Saddened because I interpreted it, in part, as a lack of creativity. And angered because it was often voiced to me by co-workers who I figured would share my view of the transcendent power of the web (seeing as how they worked at Google and all).
But on this occasion I heard a new variant of this response from my friend Emily. She asked “Why is it so important that everyone participate in the web (as a creator)?” While not necessarily included in my overview, this is a fundamental part of my belief.
Eventually, I believe, everyone will be using the web as a medium of self-expression. Just as ~everyone has an email address, so too will ~everyone have a place on the web that they can point to as being theirs (even if it’s not fully public or shared with everyone). Those that won’t are those who will be prevented through some lamentable combination of lack of access or willful rejection of technology. But both from a philosophical and professional standpoint, I want to see as many as people as possible use the web to express themselves. Moreover, I want to build the tools that enable them to do so.
Emily wasn’t buying it. She was happy that a good chunk of people would be writing blogs, making web pages, and so on. But there’s no reason to go nuts here. We shouldn’t expect or even hope for it to be everyone.
Clearly that should be the goal, I responded, for our understanding is increased as more experiences are shared. The network becomes more valuable as the number of nodes increases.
Then Emily told me about how, as a recruiter, she spends her time looking for people online. She uses advanced search engine hoodoo to find the right kind of people for the right job. And in this age when so many people can be found online, it’s a real treat to find someone who has left no mark. The same with restaurants, she argued. If you can find somewhere that hasn’t been reviewed a thousand times on yelp.com, it’s like you’re finding something special. Like a fresh snowfall before it gets all footprinted up. (OK — the snow metaphor is my own flowery nonsense, but I think it’s in the spirit of her argument).
And I realized I didn’t have a great response to that. It’s possible that as more people have online presences, there will be a natural backlash from a subsequent generation of folks who don’t want to share in that way. Maybe there will be folks who consider it a virtue to have as thin an online presence as possible, analogous to the pride some webgeeks feel when they manage to be completely unplugged for a week or weekend.
I hope this isn’t the case. I hope we can create the right mix of technology that allows everyone to share parts of themselves online in a way that is natural. For those of us involved in creating social software, I feel it should be our goal. As a result of these two conversations, however, I feel both more driven to achieve it and less assured in the inevitability of our transcendental connectedness.
How do you feel?