The Web Might Be 2.0, But Greed Has Always Been In Open Beta

from the history-doesn't-repeat-itself,-but-it-does-rhyme dept

Last week I wrote about the anti-twitter proclamations of Baroness Susan Greenfield, which I found ridiculous, to say the least. There was some debate in the comments about whether technology can be inherently good or bad, and whether it is just as naive to blindly accept technology as to blindly reject it. This is an important topic and it deserves more attention and discussion.

TechCrunch columnist Paul Carr recently mused about the overall moral ramifications of Web 2.0, the tech startup game and SEO-driven media. On one hand, I think the column is an excellent example of the right way to criticize technology: by focusing on how people use it, not on the technology itself. But the problem is that once you think that through, you realize there is very little in his observations that is new or unique to the web.

At first, Web 2.0 seemed like a perfect two-way street. Brilliant entrepreneurs who genuinely wanted to change the world built services that we all wanted to use. They became rich, and our lives became better connected. We were all in it together.

Fast forward just a handful of years, though, and something has gone very, very wrong with that particular social contract. We users have kept our side of the bargain — dutifully tagging our friends in artificially-aged photos, and checking in at bars, and writing reviews of restaurants. We’ve canceled our newspaper subscriptions, and instead spend our days clicking on slideshows of “celebrities who look like their cats” or obsessively tracking trending topics on Twitter. We’ve stopped buying books published by professional houses and instead reward authors who write, edit and distribute their own electronic works through self-publishing platforms. We’ve even handed the keys to our cars and our homes to strangers.

On the face of it, the entrepreneurs have continued down the same track too: inventing ever more Disruptive companies to further improve the world, and in doing so enjoying multi-billion dollar valuations and all the trappings of fame and fortune. Even richer have grown the angels, super-angels and VCs who carefully nurture young entrepreneurs, molding them into the next breed of Mark Zuckerbergs and Sean Parkers, reminding their charges that “what’s cool” is a billion dollars — and that every new user acquired is another dollar added to their eventual high score.

And yet. AND YET. You only have to look at a couple of mini-outrages that bubbled up in the past few days to realize just how misaligned the interests of some entrepreneurs have become with those of the human beings they rely on for their success.

The first such mini-outrage was a controversial Huffington Post article that bore the headline "Amy Winehouse’s Untimely Death Is a Wake Up Call for Small Business Owners", which Carr offers as an example of the way content sites will pander to keywords and trending topics, even when it seems heartless to do so. There is truth to this, but he mostly ignores the fact that it is hardly a new complaint or one unique to the web: for decades people have accused newspapers and broadcasters of exploiting tragedies, perpetuating scare stories and generally using every dirty trick in the book to boost circulation or ratings. Carr is an avid media critic, who certainly knows this, so it's unclear to me why he puts so much blame on new technology. He notes that "every so often we are reminded of the grimy truth: making money with online content is a question of attracting millions of eyeballs, whatever the moral cost", but that grimy truth clearly predates online content. The dark side of the media might not have disappeared as quickly and as cleanly as many people hoped at the dawn of the web, but, in sum, we certainly seem better off with fewer gatekeepers to communication. At the very least, it makes a more solid foundation on which to build a new and better media landscape.

The second example is a recent Airbnb scandal. In short, a woman's apartment was trashed by a stranger who rented it through the service, she blogged about it, and one of the co-founders called her personally with an insensitive plea for her to take down the post because of the impact it could have on Airbnb's growth and funding. He later asked her to help give it a positive spin. She made it all public, and the story picked up steam:

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, we also know for sure that investors in the company leaned on publications like TechCrunch to stop reporting the story. Their ludicrous wail of protest: AIRBNB IS RUN BY NICE GUYS! IT’S NOT FAIR TO CALL THEM OUT WHEN THEY SCREW UP!

The question of whether Airbnb is run by nice guys is irrelevant. For all I know CEO Brian Chesky is a modern day Mother Theresa who had to break off his important work curing kitten cancer to deal with this growing PR nightmare. What’s relevant — and all too obvious — is that good old Brian and his co-founders stand to make millions, if not billions, of dollars from the success of Airbnb. His investors stand to make even more. That kind of wealth can easily drive the most saintly of us to behave in inhuman ways — to become so remote from reality and humanity that users like EJ become (at best) PR problems to be solved and (at worst) irrelevant pieces of data; eyeballs or clicks or room nights to be monetized in the pursuit of an ever greater exit.

Again, my disagreement is not with his observations but with his curious focus on the web and the tech sector. None of the actual problems are new. The world is far from perfect, and society is fueled by a lot more greed, inhumanity and injustice than anyone likes to admit - most of it immeasurably more terrible than these examples. Carr's concerns have been echoing through history since the birth of industrialization, and they have ancestors before that, so it's hard to see how the web has made things worse.

In fact, I firmly believe it has made things better. To fall back on a cliche, the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, and the democratization of communication and media makes society's problems a lot harder to ignore.



Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    blaktron (profile), Aug 9th, 2011 @ 12:45pm

    Sean Parker wasn't an entrepreneur, he was an employee!!! Just because Aaron Sorkin said he made Napster, doesnt mean he did, and you'd think TechCrunch would know that!

     

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    blaktron (profile), Aug 9th, 2011 @ 12:46pm

    Sean Parker wasn't an entrepreneur, he was an employee!!! Just because Aaron Sorkin said he made Napster, doesnt mean he did, and you'd think TechCrunch would know that!

     

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  3.  
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    blaktron (profile), Aug 9th, 2011 @ 12:46pm

    Sean Parker wasn't an entrepreneur, he was an employee!!! Just because Aaron Sorkin said he made Napster, doesnt mean he did, and you'd think TechCrunch would know that!

     

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  4.  
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    Marcus Carab (profile), Aug 9th, 2011 @ 1:05pm

    Re:

    Could you repeat that please? ;)

     

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  5.  
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    blaktron (profile), Aug 9th, 2011 @ 1:45pm

    Re: Re:

    PHP fail. This is what I get for using Mac OS...

     

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  6.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 9th, 2011 @ 1:51pm

    Basic failure in the story: most of the tardian "improve the world" people are not entrepreneurs, they are just douches with time and a little money to waste. They aren't great business moguls. They don't start with a great business idea, they just start with ways to give other people's stuff away for nothing.

    When you understand that, you can understand why the rest of the post is just wishful thinking from a recent university graduate.

     

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  7.  
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    Dark Helmet (profile), Aug 9th, 2011 @ 1:51pm

    What's interesting in this guy's statements is two things, IMO:

    First, there's a clear sense of inevitability in him that money always corrupts and does so with correlation to the amount of money made. That seems simplistic and silly to me.

    Second, why doesn't he understand that some of the negative things that he's describing are the very reason why some companies lose market share to startups that behave? If his theories on all this were right, than the world would long ago have devolved into a single corporate entity that did nothing but get stronger, and stronger, and stronger. That's also simplistic and silly....

     

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  8.  
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    NullOp, Aug 9th, 2011 @ 1:55pm

    Greed

    Recently in an interview in Texas Monthly, Ms. Manners was asked what is the greatest error in etiquette currently being made. Her response floored me. She said GREED is the most common error these days. Couples are greedy when they invite friends to their home and tell them what to bring, there is greed in soon-to-be-weds registrations at expensive stores and , of course, corporate greed. Greed these days has become a way of life for some. Enough will never be enough. It's a disease of the mind.....and it's spreading.

     

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    Capitalist Lion Tamer (profile), Aug 9th, 2011 @ 2:12pm

    Re:

    Basic failure in the story: most of the tardian "improve the world" people are not entrepreneurs, they are just douches with time and a little money to waste.

    Oh. I see you've used the story to make your own point rather than address anything in the story. If you want to bash "freetards," just bash them. You don't need all this "I almost skimmed the story completely" window dressing to prop up your comment.

    In fact, it's almost impossible to figure out exactly what you're attacking. The business moguls for not improving the world? Tardian altruism? Paul Carr's belief that technology is mostly used for evil? Recent university graduates? Feminine hygiene products?

    TL;DR - The point of Marcus' post was: "People using media for sensationalism predates the 'new' web."

    Yours was: "It's all the pirates' fault."

    Um... touche, I guess.

     

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  10.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 9th, 2011 @ 2:21pm

    Re:

    I'm sure you're speaking from extensive, first hand experience with both the mentally handicapped and entepenures and not just shitting all over something you don't like behind a shround of platitudes, ad homs, and hyperbole.

     

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  11.  
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    DannyB (profile), Aug 9th, 2011 @ 2:28pm

    The atrocity of authors not using dinosaur publishers!

    We’ve stopped buying books published by professional houses and instead reward authors who write, edit and distribute their own electronic works through self-publishing platforms.

    Oh the humanity!

    How dare authors who write and edit their works dare to distribute them in some new way that cuts out the dinosaur gatekeepers of the past!

    They can't be allowed to do that!

    A "professional" publishing house is entitled to a cut of the profits from any author's new book.

    Somebody needs to pass a law or something. If that author won't get his book "published by professional houses" then he must be a freetard!

     

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  12.  
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    DannyB (profile), Aug 9th, 2011 @ 2:31pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    A problem I had to unfurl
    My stomach it started to curl
    A bad referenced array
    I found to my dismay
    I’m just glad it’s not written in C++

     

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  13.  
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    Benny6Toes (profile), Aug 9th, 2011 @ 2:40pm

    It's all Public Relations

    I don't think it's so much about morals as much as it is about public relations.

    Carr's concerns defintiely aren't anything new, but coompanies' ability to handle customer issues hasn't kept pace with how fast an issue can grow from minor to major.

    Issues have become much more immediate and obvious (to the general public). 15, perhaps even 10 years ago a story like the one about Airbnb would have taken longer to get out; not just days, but perhaps weeks or even months (depending on how far back you want to go). Companies would have time to craft a PR response or wait and see if it was really worth caring about. They could get out in front of it and try to control the message.

    That time is past.

    Now, a story like that one can take only a few hours to become widely known. If it takes more than a day or two, then it's probaboly not that interesting to the general population (or at least the media) to begin with.

    But the "problem" for companies is that there is no longer time to react. PR is now a 24/7, every-second-counts game. It's not possible to get out in front of a problem. They can only catch up to it.

    They can't wait and see if a problem is really worth caring about. Everybody has a bullhorn, and every problem a customer may have is amplified by everyone else's bullhorn.

    Companies, even those that are supposedly savvy and have a rabid following (I'm looking at you Apple and twitter), still seem like they haven't quite figured this out. Even young companies liek Facebook and twitter suffer from the old-school mindset of, "we have time so let's ignore it unless it becomes a problem."

    The only way to get out in front of a PR issue now is to either be clairvoyant or treat every customer issue as if it could damage the company; because every customer issue now has that very real potential (no matter if it really deserves it). For whatever reason, companies, in general, haven't yet figured out how to handle this.

    So what we get is companies scrambling to get ahead of something they have no hope of getting ahead of, and they're using the same tactics they always have. Techcrunch reporting on Airbnb? Talk to TechCrunch and ask them to report less or tone down the reporting. When they had days or even weeks to talk to them, a company might have been able to work soemthing out. Maybe the company tries to silence the customer in some way as well. Too bad that the cusotmer still has their bullhorn and no need to be patient thanks to the immediate response we can get from the web.

    The lead time is gone. Customers expect swift answers. Companies just haven't figured out how to deal with it yet, and I can't figure out why that is.

     

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  14.  
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    out_of_the_blue, Aug 9th, 2011 @ 3:17pm

    Short version: the love of money is the root of all evil.

    Reasonable people need to see that other people stay reasonable even in the presence of mass markets that reward minuscule efforts with vast money, a dime at a time. -- That's why we more than ever need high income tax rates, and an absolute upper limit on incomes. It's not punishing innovators or their success, it's insuring that the innovations aren't all about skimming money and using it for power games.

     

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  15.  
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    Andrew D. Todd, Aug 9th, 2011 @ 3:19pm

    The Dark Side of the Media and Amy Winehouse.

    I note that both the Huffington Post commentator Tricia Cox, and Paul Carr of Techcrunch misunderstand Amy Winehouse. Some time back, I discussed the idea of the rock star as an ancient pagan year-king.

    http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20100303/0037458379.shtml#c399

    From all I have heard, Amy Winehouse seems to be a representative example, in this case a year-queen, drumming up traffic by parading her self-destructive tendencies before the kinds of kids who would eventually participate in the still-unfolding London Riots. Their condition for worshiping her was that she had to act out their own latent death-wish, and she was ultimately in the position of Scheherezade, trying to persuade the Sultan why her own execution should not be scheduled for the following morning. The events are linked. You can only understand why Winehouse committed suicide, or overdosed, or, possibly, was murdered, if you understand why the riots took place. The riots sound very much like our own riots during the 1960's, in Watts and other places. I suppose Illinois Governor Otto Kerner's official report on the American "troubles" is equally valid for the English case.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kerner_Commission

    The internet probably made it easier for Winehouse's "fans" (if one may use that word) to check on her and make sure she wasn't cheating, that she really was taking drugs and not drinking orange juice. In the same way, one can talk about the role electronic communications in facilitating "flash mobs." But of course, the media did not create the underlying circumstances. The Iron Age year-kings were ultimately the product of superstitious pagan proto-Germanic farmers who were desperately afraid that winter would never end, and that they would starve. The modern year-king is the product of people who are desperately afraid that the new order has no place for them.

     

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  16.  
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    Marcus Carab (profile), Aug 9th, 2011 @ 3:29pm

    Re: The atrocity of authors not using dinosaur publishers!

    Heh - that's the funny thing about Paul Carr though. If you read that whole passage a couple of times in the context of the article, it seems like he's actually making two points at once - he's actually totally acknowledging that this is the way things are going and that it has a lot of potential for good too, but he's also slipping in a bit of a snide attitude because he has a personal preference (or at least fondness) for many aspects of the "old-fashioned" way of doing things, and he's not afraid to say so. Lines like that irk me sometimes too, but I read his columns a lot and it's clear that he's not stupid - he won't yell at the kids to get off the lawn, but sometimes he will have fun coming up with new ways to mock them. He actually has a lot of good points - and he's a writer worth following to get a different perspective that isn't wacko or narrow-minded.

     

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  17.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 9th, 2011 @ 9:12pm

    Re: Re:

    Tim, I just started with what is in the quote:

    "At first, Web 2.0 seemed like a perfect two-way street. Brilliant entrepreneurs who genuinely wanted to change the world built services that we all wanted to use."

    That is the starting point of the discussion, and it is wrong. Most of what was built on the internet was built "because they could", and not because of any great entrepreneurial spirit. A few aimed for greatness (Amazon), but most just globbed onto the web thing and shit happened (facebook, twitter, etc). Most of them didn't start with a business model, and it can easily be argued that most of them still don't have one.

    So when you start with "we found this cool way to pirate movies", there is no entrepreneur in there, just people finding a faster and easier way than copying DVDs to get the latest movie.

    So assuming that most of what is popular started out with an entrepreneur is sort of a failing start point. That is the magic of the internet - the harder you try to have a business model, the more likely you are to fail.

     

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  18.  
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    The eejit (profile), Aug 10th, 2011 @ 12:41am

    Re: Re: Re:

    "So when you start with "we found this cool way to pirate movies", there is no entrepreneur in there, just people finding a faster and easier way than copying DVDs to get the latest movie."

    So, Web 2.0 was only meant for pirates and everything else can go fuck itself? Someone thinks you might just have an agenda or two. Mine is Chaos, Tranquility and pleading the Fifth when it goes tits-up.

     

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  19.  
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    IronM@sk, Aug 10th, 2011 @ 1:42am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Sooo, Amazon, facebook and twitter are just... unauthorised movie sharing sites? That's all I got from your post. Where was file sharing even mentioned in the article, and how in the hell did you jump from your second paragraph to the third? It's like I was reading a book about dolphin migration, fell asleep on page 23, woke up with page 96 in front of me and the subject had turned to DIY power tool maintenance. Seriously, your paragraph transitions are like a car pile up on the interstate. Take a pill.

     

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  20.  
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    MAC, Aug 10th, 2011 @ 5:44am

    Why the shock?

    Did anyone forget about human nature?

    Just because you can do a thing does not mean you should do a thing but; there is always some idiot out there that will do the thing...

     

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  21.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 10th, 2011 @ 6:32am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    No, both of you are trying hard to be ignorant here.

    What I am saying is that most "web 2.0" sites were not started by businessmen or entrepreneurs, they were just started by people who thought it was a cool idea to be able to do X or Y or Z. Some of those sites (but not all of them) are organized around sharing things, anything, including pirated content. They may also share personal pictures, or comments, or what have you. They aren't all about piracy.

    IMHO, Amazon is a web 1.x company, they were around well before YouTube made it to the market.

    It's hard to have a discussion when you guys are working so hard to intentionally not understand.

     

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  22.  
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    Marcus Carab (profile), Aug 10th, 2011 @ 6:40am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    What I am saying is that most "web 2.0" sites were not started by businessmen or entrepreneurs, they were just started by people who thought it was a cool idea to be able to do X or Y or Z.

    Uh, it sounds to me like you are saying exactly what Carr said... your issue seems to be solely with the choice of the word "entrepreneurs"

     

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  23.  
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    Capitalist Lion Tamer (profile), Aug 10th, 2011 @ 6:51am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    So when you start with "we found this cool way to pirate movies", there is no entrepreneur in there, just people finding a faster and easier way than copying DVDs to get the latest movie.

    But no one is starting the discussion this way but you. If the rest of us don't start with the assumption that Web 2.x services exist mainly (or even partially) to facilitate file sharing, it makes it hard for us to reach the same conclusion you do. Also, most p2p predates anything that could loosely be termed "Web 2.0."

    What I am saying is that most "web 2.0" sites were not started by businessmen or entrepreneurs, they were just started by people who thought it was a cool idea to be able to do X or Y or Z. Some of those sites (but not all of them) are organized around sharing things, anything, including pirated content. They may also share personal pictures, or comments, or what have you. They aren't all about piracy.

    Yes. A lot of web 2.0 was set up by people who found a cooler, smarter or more efficient way do things. But you're losing everybody when you want to tie the notion of Web 2.0 into "better, faster, harder piracy."

    So, I understand that you think piracy is a problem and advancements in web technology have only made piracy easier. What I don't understand is how your views on piracy have anything to do with the subject at hand, other than the tenuous threads you've typed up to link them your pet peeve.

     

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  24.  
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    Marcel de Jong (profile), Aug 11th, 2011 @ 2:19am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Because Perl is much better? :)

     

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  25.  
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    Marcel de Jong (profile), Aug 11th, 2011 @ 2:30am

    Re: The Dark Side of the Media and Amy Winehouse.

    The riots in England has nothing to do with Amy Winehouse. Not sure where you put that correlation.

    At first the conflict started because the Metropolitan Police killed a drug dealer and then later during the first riots a 16 year old bystander got shot by the police, which really ignited the already very volatile community.

    And right now the looting and rioting has devolved into just rioting because it's something to do.

     

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