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Aaron Swartz - The Network Transformation
San Francisco, April 2007 
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Here Swartz describes the nature of the shift from centralized one-to-many systems, such as broadcast television, to the decentralized many-to-many topography of network communication. The end of scarcity in transmission capacity poses the question of how to finance information production and how people can find their way through the abundance; search engines and collaborative filtering mechanisms have become both essential tools and points of control. These systems paradoxically exercise a renewed centralizing influence due to the social entrenchment of the 'hit' phenomenon. Can technical design help to counteract this tendency?

Play from beginning
00:00:03 The change in the architecture of the media is completely connected to a change of the control
00:00:08 With the broadcast system you have one person in one station
00:00:11 deciding what gets put out over the airwaves.
00:00:13 When you have distributed network like the internet everybody can be a server.
00:00:17 There's no distinction between the broadcaster and the receiver:
00:00:20 every computer does both.
00:00:22 You can take your home laptop and run a server off of it that can distribute movies and music
00:00:27 and webpages and email in the same way that the biggest computers at google can.
00:00:31 there's no fundamental difference between the computers they have in iraq in their server rooms
00:00:35 and what you have on your desk
00:00:38 In the old system of broadcasting,
00:00:39 you were fundamentally limited by the amount of space in the airwaves
00:00:42 you could only send out 10 channels over the airwaves in television
00:00:46 or even with cable you had 500 channels.
00:00:48 On the internet, everybody can have a channel;
00:00:50 everyone can get a blog or a MySpace page;
00:00:53 everyone has a way of expressing themselves
00:00:55 and so what you see now is not a question of
00:00:57 who gets access to the airwaves,
00:00:59 it's a question of who gets control
00:01:00 over the ways you find people.
00:01:02 You start seeing power centralising in sites like google,
00:01:05 these sort of 'gatekeepers' that tell you where on the internet you want to go
00:01:08 the people who provide you your sources of news and information.
00:01:11 so its not only certain people have a license to speak
00:01:15 now everyone has a license to speak,
00:01:16 it's question of who gets heard.
00:01:19 So one of the biggest questions we're facing in a world of many speakers
00:01:22 how do you find what's good?
00:01:24 Are we gonna go to a system like the old media where you go to CNN
00:01:27 and they pick a handful of people to focus on
00:01:29 and you read what they say
00:01:30 or are we going to go with something more like the internet
00:01:32 where everybody has a chance of being heard, a more democratic system.
00:01:35 One of the most interesting technologies for doing something like that
00:01:38 is a system called collaborative filtering,
00:01:40 where everybody expresses their opinions on what they like and what they don't like
00:01:43 and the computer tries to match you up with other people who have similar preferences
00:01:47 and recommend you things that they also like that you didn't know about before.
00:01:50 It's the same kind of system you see on Amazon
00:01:52 where people who bought this book also bought this book
00:01:55 people are trying to experiment that not only with books
00:01:58 but with blogs, web pages and news stories all across the internet,
00:02:01 they're trying to find ways and things that you've never heard of before
00:02:04 and bringing them in front of you
00:02:06 Mass media had this fundamental paradox
00:02:08 because it was aiming at a huge audience
00:02:10 but it wanted to convince everybody they were an individual
00:02:12 you see all these ads on television all the time like
00:02:15 'buck the trend, buy these jeans' right!?
00:02:17 and it's on a show that 4 million people are watching,
00:02:20 you're not going to buck a trend by doing what 4 million other people are.
00:02:24 Now that the internet is actually making these nitch things possible
00:02:27 the mass media is incredibly threatened
00:02:29 no longer this idea of bucking the crowd and being your own
00:02:33 it's no longer just a theory you can actually do it on the internet
00:02:36 And what we're starting to see is tools that take power away from the big conglomerates
00:02:40 and start to distribute it to small groups.
00:02:42 And so there are a bunch of issues in a system like that there are questions of funding you know,
00:02:47 how will these small groups get paid and how will the random blogger be able to live
00:02:50 in a way that an investigative journalist can now
00:02:53 because there's one giant source of advertising
00:02:55 you know there are question finding people, how will I be able to find the stuff I'm interested,
00:02:59 and the stuff that's trustworthy and reliable
00:03:02 and so for each of these there are new technologies
00:03:04 people are trying all kinds of different things
00:03:06 and all of these say different things about the internet
00:03:08 there is still experimentation in this, since everybody can just go up and start a website
00:03:12 with a new piece of technology that try and solve one of these problems
00:03:15 We're seeing lots of different possibilities, lots of different funding models
00:03:18 lots of different recommendations systems and who knows what will work best
00:03:23 we have a chance to try it all and see what falls out
00:03:25 So there are a couple of interesting funding models:
00:03:27 One of course is this standard model of advertising,
00:03:30 you go to a bunch of big corporate sponsors and instead of having them fund a television show
00:03:35 you have them fund your webpage
00:03:36 but a more interesting one is you do the same thing with nitch groups
00:03:40 instead of going to IBM/Ford or a big company, and having them buy a banner on your website
00:03:45 you go to people that actually care about the readers you have
00:03:47 if you're a design weblog you go to design companies
00:03:50 if you're a political blog, you go to other politicians
00:03:53 you have a very targeted narrow group of people who are really interested in the subject,
00:03:58 thats an audience advertisers really love
00:04:01 another possibility is to turn directly to your readers for support
00:04:04 you see blogs say, I wanna go to a trip to New Hampshire
00:04:07 to cover the american political conventions
00:04:10 will you support me?
00:04:12 and the readers pour in money
00:04:13 these people are very dedicated they feel like they have a personal connection
00:04:16 with the person writing
00:04:17 they are eager to spend money to support it!
00:04:21 Another thing is that you simply work of volunteer labor
00:04:23 you have people that have a day job thats an expert in a subject
00:04:27 and they just enjoy talking about it so they rate stuff in their free time
00:04:30 and publish it on the internet
00:04:31 or they have readers who read their site and contribute stuff
00:04:34 and it gets compiled into one exciting source.
00:04:36 So I think there are lots of interesting experiments,
00:04:39 people are trying lots of different ways
00:04:41 One of the errors you had with television, right, could only provide one level of interest
00:04:48 it was funded based on adertising not on how much people cared about the programme
00:04:52 advertisers were going to pay the same no matter how exciting or how compelling
00:04:56 or how interested an audience was in a show
00:04:58 so what you ended up with was fairly boring shows that appealed to lots of people
00:05:01 because that's what advertisers wanted
00:05:04 they wanted lots people watching the shows
00:05:06 whereas in a normal market economy what happens is
00:05:08 if you really want something you pay more for it
00:05:10 you just can't do that with television.
00:05:12 So one of the interesting things about broadcast is that a lot of what you like
00:05:15 depends on what other people like
00:05:17 there are only so many shows out there
00:05:19 they are all kind of bland
00:05:20 so what happens, you have these megahits
00:05:22 like American Idol or lost, where everybody at the water cooler is talking about this show,
00:05:27 so you have to watch it because otherwise you can't keep up with them
00:05:30 whatever social factors get involved
00:05:33 you have this sort of process of rich gets richer
00:05:35 one thing takes off because thats what everybody else is doing!
00:05:40 One nice thing about the internet is that it allows for so much more variety
00:05:43 that nitch products can get so much more attention and interest
00:05:48 So they've the run the numbers and this this proven mathematical fact
00:05:50 that as long as some percentage of what you care about is whether other people
00:05:54 like it or now you're gonna end up with this patterns of hits and failures
00:05:58 if you have two things which are equivalent in quality,
00:06:01 one of them is liked by one more person than the other one,
00:06:04 you're going to go that one
00:06:06 there's some small chance that you're going to go to that one
00:06:08 and everybody's going to start going to that one
00:06:09 and all of a sudden you have harry potter
00:06:11 this one book plucked of nowhere that suddenly becomes this massive mega-hit.
00:06:14 not because it's a hundred million times better written than every other book
00:06:18 but simply because everybody's reading it
00:06:21 and putting stuff on the internet doesn't change that,
00:06:23 you still care about what your friends like, still wanna read what everybody else is talking about,
00:06:27 ou still wanna do what's popular because you think maybe other people have a valid opinion
00:06:30 and maybe you wanna talk to them about it maybe you want to join part of this community
00:06:34 but whatever your reason is, as long as you care about what other people opinion
00:06:37 you're going to end up with these hits.
00:06:38 You just have this social signifier that everybody cares about
00:06:39 You just have this social signifier that everybody cares about
00:06:41 everybody's watching American Idol doesn't matter how good the show is
00:06:45 I mean it has to be somewhat decent so people watch it, but once everybody's watching it,
00:06:49 talking about it, you know, it suddenly becomes this megahit for no real reason,
00:06:54 right, just because it's a social phenomenon
00:06:56 and what television does, it chops off the tale and it throws away all the other shows
00:07:00 people would like but don't care enough about to be megahits
00:07:03 and instead pours all of its money into these cheap produced shows
00:07:06 well you can't get rid of hits, right
00:07:08 it's a fact that people would wanna do what their friends are doing
00:07:11 you can't avoid that but what you can do is say there's the whole rest of the world out there
00:07:15 there's a whole rest of what people care about other than what everybody else is doing
00:07:19 Everybody has their own particular interests everybody has something that fascinates them
00:07:22 and what the internet does is it allows them to 'do' that
00:07:25 to get involved and find other people who share these things
00:07:29 one of the exciting things about Wickipedia is that it doesn't just have articles on
00:07:33 you know, 100 most popular things or 1000 most popular things
00:07:36 you can pick the most obscure subject in the world and there's an article about it
00:07:39 Because for EVERYTHING, there's someone who cares a great deal about it
00:07:43 and that's what television, that's what radio doesn't provide, but the internet does!
00:07:46 it provides a way for you to get in touch with those other people who really
00:07:50 care about this completely obscure thing
00:07:52 It doesn't just go into the direction of topic, it goes into the direction of time
00:07:56 You can go back in time and find all the shows that have been canceled
00:07:58 find all the articles that have been deleted
00:08:00 you can go back and find everything that has been lost in major culture
00:08:04 and it's got a place on the internet
00:08:05 Youtube music videos from the 70s and the 80s that you can't find anywhere these days
00:08:09 you can watch at your leisure
00:08:11 I think lessening the power of the hits
00:08:13 bringing down the things from the top and making it more egalitarian
00:08:16 is the something we should always strive for
00:08:18 it may be really difficult it may not be super possible
00:08:21 but it's something to hope for, to drive for
00:08:24 and what that means is
00:08:26 throwing away as much as possible all the things that give you hints about
00:08:31 you should do this because other people like it
00:08:34 it's very tempting when you're building a website or programming system
00:08:37 is to start sorting things that are really popular at the top
00:08:39 but all that does is, that it makes it less democratic and less fair
00:08:43 you have to have continual pressure, to try and pull things from the bottom from the tale up
00:08:48 give everybody a chance to look at everything and if you do that
00:08:51 maybe, you won't get completely rid of hits,
00:08:53 but you can start to ???? some of their problems
00:08:55 I mean that's one power of data mining is that construct to find obscure subjects
00:08:59 that you wouldn't have found simply because they are not popular
00:09:01 you know one of the tools of recommendation
00:09:03 can be to pull you to the less popular stuff on the tale
00:09:06 The random article button on Wikipedia is really cool in this sense
00:09:10 you can just wake up every day and read about some completely random topic
00:09:13 that you never heard of except for the fact that there's an article on the Wikipedia about it
00:09:17 and boy are there some completely random topics on Wikipepdia