A journey on the information superhighway – evan williams
Hello friends. I want to talk to you today about the Internet, just generally. Because I think I figured it out. I have some theories. I’m also gonna need the clicker.
To tell about my theory -> how I got the theories -> a lot of my life.
Starts in a small place in the middle of the country. Big place, lots of land, not a lot of people in that place. My school was less than 60 people in a high school, they were all white, all the boys played football except for me. That and in many other ways I felt very different growing up. I yearned for the world outside. I didn’t feel like I belonged there, I yearned for different perspectives and ideas and people. I didn’t see the ocean in person until I was 20, didn’t leave the US until 29.
One way I discovered growing up in the middle of cornfield- discovered a technology that could take me out of there. Time travel and mind reading that allowed me to tap into the minds of people who were much wiser than people around me. Books.
I wasn’t that into the books assigned in school– mostly made up stories that I didn’t see the point of, or facts that weren’t particularly useful. Library had cool books that would teach me how to do things like juggling. Not very good, but it impressed my friends and I learned it from book- aha, this is power.
Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.
First business book- 15 or 16- bought a book about how to make money in real estate. Seemed like reasonable thing for a 16 year old growing up in Nebraska with no money. But while reading the book- epiphany- years of experience and knowledge had gone into that little device in my hands and I could read that in a few hours and gain the benefits of that experience- and I thought that’s incredibly powerful, why aren’t people reading books all the time? What else might they learn?
I enjoyed all kinds of media that would give me a glimpse of the outside world. Only 3 channels on TV. Magazines were cool- real time information about things happening in other parts of the country where there were cool people. The coolest people to me were people with BMX bikes and skateboards. Those guys who did tricks, and I obsessed over that stuff and tried to emulate it back on the farm- couldn’t afford the bikes, tried to make it on my own, harder to learn than juggling by reading about it.
Later always kept this love of magazines and books. Walked into the mall- new magazine, different from the others- people on the cover- Wired magazine. Second ever issue of Wired magazine in 1993. I was 20 years old. Gave me a glimpse of a whole ‘other world. I had dabbled in computers, but this was something different- as a sophomore in highschool- took basic programming, was great at it, was way better than everybody else, went above and beyond.
Thought I’d be a programmer, but. Didn’t get into it- Lack of discipline or friends who were into it, or a computer
Wasn’t just about computer, it was about a world that you could get to, that was full of knowledge and ideas and people.
My life’s mission is to hook up the 5.5 billion brains on this planet- dave hughes, 1993. This was the kind of stuff wired magazine talked about.
Paul sacho- text is the hot new medium? Wired may have influenced me more than I realise. Words have been decoupled from paper. Our electronic novelties are transforming the world as profoundly as the printing press did half a millennium ago.
This was the future and I needed to be a part about it. My real estate ventures hadn’t worked out but I was an entrepreneur- dropped out of college, had no money, no intention of getting a job. I gotta be in the internet. What’s my role here, Internet? What can I sell, what can I create? Lacking those computer skills, I decided what’s better than the product of knowledge? Get other people to get on the internet.
Instead of using the old fashioned technology- books, and there were a couple of books about how to get on the internet (in 1993, not a trivial feat in nebraska in 1993). Got some buddies together- journalism school in uni of nebraska- made a video, borrowed a camera, went down in my basement, recorded a video.
This launched me into being an internet entrepreneur which I’ve been ever since- don’t think I used that word at the time, or anybody, at least in Nebraska.
California was the place I oughta be, so I made it out… started blogger a couple of years later. We were working on something else, much more complicated management thing, but we all had blogs, and I had written a script so I could just type in a box and a new thing. Dave Weiner…
Worked on blogger for about 6 years, before Google, then sold it to Google…
Why did it work? At the time, described it as- not about blogger or blogging, but about this realisation of the great promise of the internet. The democratization of knowledge, ideas, influence. Anybody could share their thoughts with everybody. The idea was there at the beginning of the internet, and blogs made it more real and more possible.
That was they way I described that and was happy about that. The internet was awesome and it worked.
But I think I missed something actually, back then. Because I didn’t really know what the internet was. I thought I did- back in my video, I described it as a puzzle comprised of computers, information and people. I guess all those things are involved, but we probably wouldn’t describe it that way today.
So what IS the internet? I decided that the internet wasn’t really computers- the computers are there, and more than ever, but we never see them anymore- even those of us who work on the internet. We don’t even see the wires- those are there too, but the internet is literally in the air. The information- not such a quaint and static word. Even people on the internet is much different than when we talk about people on the internet back then- there used to be people on the internet and there were people who weren’t.
Now it’s just this thing that we all use- these connections. There’s the hardware connections, data and software. If you look at any big internet thing, it’s basically a big pile of connection. Even a link- the humble href- is a little connection. A follow is a connection. A like is a connection.
The internet is connection everyone and everything and every event and every thought in multiple ways, layer upon layer of connections. Increasingly everything that happens and everything you do, every place you go, check-in, every thought you have, share, every person who liked that thought, share, fav’d, every song you play, it’s all connected. Mapped. Database. All multiplying relentless.
So that’s what I think the internet is, but why? Why are these connections growing like they are? Is there something more than- is there some sort of organising force or principle that’s driving all of this? I don’t mean some sort of cosmic principle, just something that explains what happens on the internet and might predict what comes next?
The internet is simply a giant machine designed to give people what they want. That’s what these connections do. The internet makes human desires more easily attainable. It offers convenience. The latin root of the word convenience is assembling and agreeing. They assemble us all, convene us all, offer us convieniences for whatever we want.
Human desires doesn’t changed that much, over years and generations or millennia depending on how much you abstract. People want the things they’ve always wanted Love and money and status and a sense of belonging, they want to influence and get answers and create. They want solutions to their problems, and they want stuff. Convenience on the internet is achieved by offering two things- speed and cognitive ease. I don’t want wait and I don’t wanna think. If you study what the really big things on the internet are, you realise they’re the masters at making things fast, and not making people think. They also take out steps. That’s another way of defining convenience. Things that used to take several steps now takes a few steps.
Blogger didn’t enable anyone to do anything new that they couldn’t do as long as the web existed anyway, it just made it more convenient. And when you drop the barrier, that causes people to do more stuff- incentives/effort.
Twitter came along and obliterated a lot of blogging because it fulfilled the same desires more conveniently. Reduced cognitive strain, eliminated tonnes of choices.
Look at the really big companies and services and you see the same pattern- Google are really good at speed, cover a wide range of human desires– answers, solution, information. So easy- there’s one box, you don’t even have to come close to spelling anything correctly. Fast, reliable, always have the answer, you don’t have to think about it.
Facebook- covers a huge part of our human desires involving connecting with other people. Sense of belonging, influence, recognition, validation. And they do that more conveniently than anybody else because they connected all the people in the world who are online.
Amazon- masters at speed and convenience. One-click. Huge selection, low prices, amazon prime, free shipping. All about making things faster and more convenient.
Apple- lauded for their great design, they make a lot of pretty things, but they also take out a lot of steps. They don’t make you think and they make it fast. They realise the importance of convenience so much they licensed the one-click from amazon so they could put it iTunes. Ruthlessly negotiated with the record companies so that every song will be 99 songs so you don’t need to think. Purchasing music more convenient, a lot of people started purchasing music who’d previously considered it free, because it was too much of a pain.
Here’s the formula if you want to build a billion dollar internet company. Identify a human desire- preferably something that’s been around a really long time. We often think the Internet enables people to do new things, but people just want to do the same things they’ve always done. You identify that desire than you use modern technology to take out steps. And make them not have to think. Example Uber- how old is the desire to get from here to there? How hard was it really to do? They took out some steps from that process, and they’re worth 3.5 billion dollars. They formed a connection between you and the driver.
Shortly after I moved to california, my older sister came to visit and we were at the Mariott down town in SF. And if you’ve ever been there you know it has these vast panoramic views of the city- and this is where I still lived in <> a sleepy town in the north of SF. And we were looking out over the city and I was dreaming and hoping and wondering- I moved to SF, how amazing would that be? My sister, who was paying for her drinks on her schoolteacher salary- I was broke- it was a scary thought for a farm boy to move to the big city, but also an exciting one. SF seemed so full of possibilities, kind of how the internet seemed back then. I made it to SF- something happens when you moved to place that you only dreamed of. Human nature that the exciting becomes routine- you fail to notice the amazing thing and you still notice the annoying thing. The routine becomes mundane. It’s harder when you’re at XOXO, but in your daily life it may seem that way- especially if you accept my premise that it just makes things easier.
The Information Superhighway just led to a convenience store, seems kinda mundane, even depressing. So I thought about it- is that true, if so, how should we feel about this? I decided to a certain extent the internet is not what I thought it was 20 years ago when I started working on it. Might not be what you thought it was.
It’s not a utopian world, it’s simply like a lot of other technologies, other major tech revolutions- agriculture. Agriculture was obviously a tremendous invention. Made life better. Got people fed and freed them up to do many more things- create art, invent things, conquer other lands. That was tremendously valuable, helped us move forward, evolve. Taken to an extreme, we have industrialized farms with little regard for the environment or animals or nourishment- purely in pursuit of profit, or you look at a country full of people that have had that such convenient access to calories that they’re addicted and obese and sick. And maybe convenience can be taken too far. Lots of examples with agriculture, industrial revolution. The inconvenient consequences of convenience.
What might that mean for the internet? I don’t think it means that convenience is bad. I love Uber, Google, Amazon- I love that they free me up to do more stuff. The convenience is only bad if we miss the point- which is if we forget about nourishment and freeing people up and doing better and better things. If we only focus about the clicks and the connections and RTs and likes for the sake about those things.
Easy to do when you came from a time where it seemed like anything that would be successful on the Internet would be a good thing because the internet had a bias for good
Just as there are lots of great artisanal healthy food choices, there is the potential and reality of amazing, positive good things coming from the internet, even though it’s driving force is convenience, because humans don’t only have mundane desires, they have amazing desires to make art and music and funny card games, and to help people and do science. The internet makes all these things more possible too. Kickstarter, change.org, Etsy make it possible for people to use the internet to do things against the convenience of mass manufacturing.
If we don’t lose the point, that’s a very good thing. The internet is still awesome. After 20 years in cyberspace, I think it’s mundane because it’s ubiquitous, but it’s also powerful and real, unlike back then. So let’s go make it worthwhile.