I went last night to a very stimulating panel session “The Technology Revolution” sponsored by the terrific Connecticut Forum, in Hartford. Jimmy Wales and Craig Newmark (founders of Wikipedia and Craigslist, respectively) spoke, and were well matched on stage by danah boyd, a social media guru from MIT/Stanford (lack of caps in danah’s name are her mother’s strange punctuation affectation, not mine). All three were ably moderated by the humorous and knowledgable Jonathan Zittrain, a co-founder of the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
OK. Now that all the names and pedigrees are covered, here are some of the night’s nuggets.
“How many renegade users have you permanently blocked on Wikipedia?” Wales:
Oh about two hundred. But we once blocked the country of Qatar by accident. A single IP address block shut down the entire population.
“How much money does Craigslist make?” Newmark:
I really don’t know. Jim [the COO] would probably know. And Mabel [?] would certainly know.
“How does Wikipedia make money?” Wales:
All I know is that our business model is laughable.
Wales went on to talk about how, given Wikipedia’s massive page views, simply adding Google Adsense would contribute up to $80M to the bottom line. “But we haven’t done it because our users haven’t asked for it.” After the appreciative audience applause died down, Wales went on to say that they constantly consider that Wikipedia’s potential untapped revenue is a massive resource for doing good, namely in the form of third world philanthropy. So he told the prematurely congratulatory crowd that, although he is not making any changes whatsoever to the business model, we should all consider what we could be doing for the less fortunate if Wikipedia were ad-supported.
I liked that response because internet consumers, especially of a site like Wikipedia, can have an over-developed sense of entitlement to free content. In my own small way, I myself have helped contribute to that user entitlement by working on a free website service, Ziggs, so I especially appreciate Wales’ artful balancing of this issue (and many others) during the evening.
Another thing that endeared me to both Wales and Newmark is that they revealed their humanity. Not just in their thoughtfulness about their businesses and various commercial and social issues. But also there was a whole lot they just didn’t know, or attempt to address, or that they even got wrong. For instance, their comments on Amazon’s “artificial artificial intelligence” product Mechanical Turk, were way off base. I had the sense they didn’t really get it.
Although that sounds like a criticism, I have to say I liked to see that even “the big guys” only have so much bandwidth. That is one of the foremost issues of trying to build a Web 2.0 business… so many relevant and pressing factors like technology, user behavior, and monetization opportunties move so quickly that just keeping current, much less using the information to better a business, is a Herculean task. I was secretly pleased to see a little stumble here and there from these luminaries.
Danah boyd, being an academic, seemed to have bandwidth to spare in her parsing of various social media and internet-related societal issues. One of her best moments (of many), was when she responded to the question of whether new technologies are increasing generation gaps. She said this was largely a US issue, where age segregation is so very prominent in the society. (Anyone who has lived outside the US knows exactly what she means). Boyd went on to say that, whereas Facebook might create a bit of a silo for US teenagers, it only reflects the larger cultural tendency to both isolate and fear teenagers. By contrast, the Korean counterpart to Facebook (CyWorld) is very much a place for people ages 8 to 80.
Other fun tidbits:
- Craiglsist has over 6 billion page views per month and operates with a staff of 23 people.
- Wales said that Wikipedia is “getting really bloated.” They are up to ten people.
- Each panelist gave out their email address to the 2,000 attendees, but Wales also quickly commented. “Yeah, because I don’t get enough email.”
- Zittrain said in a segment about tech pet peeves, “Why is it that the level of security to get through to a site is always inversely proportionate to how much you care about it? Just try to read an article from the Hartford Courant. The registration hurdles are massive.”
- Asked what mobile devices they each carried, boyd and Wales both extolled the virtues of their Sidekick (I was sold). Newmark sheepishly pulled out his iPhone (“I feel so manly” ) and a custom built fully functional portable computer about the size of a dime store novel.
- Danah’s moniker is “High Priestess of Internet Friendships”. She spends most of her research time hanging out with teenagers.
- Craig’s big shtick is that he mainly does customer service (“I’m not a very good manager”) and he emphasized treating other people like you would like to be treated. He kept calling it “giving a guy a break.” He sees Craigslist as one huge experiment in giving the average person a break.
I was attending as a guest of the Connecticut Forum and I guess I would say that that organization certainly gave me a break last night. Fantastic. Thank you to the Forum founders, Richard and Doris Sugarman.