Dave Winer: We can’t live in a world that doesn’t have Facebook
One of the most influential web personalities talks about the web, social networks and the NSA scandal
Trieste – Dave Winer has been defined in many ways: “The father of blogging and of feed readers”, “One of the most important people for the evolution of online media”, one of the 25 most influential people on the web, according to Fortune. Still, as I meet him at State of the Net in Trieste for a chat about the influence of new technologies on journalism and democracy, you get the feeling that you’re not really dealing with a “guru”, but rather with a person who likes to think out loud, provoke and mix considerations that are the result of years of experience and sudden intuitions.
Winer, in short, is the incarnation of his idea of information as a stream that is constant and bare, without filters or mediation. As Jeff Jarvis wrote back in 2006 describing his project – which is still up-to-date, as we’ll see – related to “rivers of news”. “Just news, sir, and let it flow”. Honesty allows Winer to go beyond being politically correct, something that ruins many interviews; soft tones, thinking that even if you don’t necessarily agree on a conclusion, preconditions ought to be taken into consideration.
At State of the Net you defined yourself as a software developer: “Every morning, when I wake up, I write code”. But the code you’ve written, and are currently writing, has also changed the way we understand the ecosystem of information and of online conversations.
“I make tools. But I’m not only a programmer: the best term for what I do I believe is ‘media hacker’. There are a lot more possibilities with media now than there have been for the past few decades, and so the question is: what combinations of media actually work, and which don’t? It’s a process involving experimentation, learning, feedback, verification. Sometimes you try an idea out and it doesn’t work, and a few years later it does, because the environment is different.”
Can you give us an example?
“Podcasting. We experimented with this for the first time at the beginning of 2001 and nothing particular happened. Maybe someone read about it, but it wasn’t understood. We continued for a few years to try approaching the tool in new ways, until in 2004 it began to work. Before that moment it wouldn’t have happened, in part because we made it look like it was hard to do and should have made it look easy. Also, in 2004 there was iPod, while there wasn’t in 2001. And so we started working with Chris Liebing [Lydon] at NPR: he was great, we did a whole series together. They became very popular. Then I did one myself, and suddenly everyone started to copy me. Which was fine, because getting everybody to do it was what I was trying to achieve.”
Today, what would you try to “get everybody to do” in journalism?
“A lot of things. One that I have persistently tried to get people do is to operate ‘rivers’. A ‘river’ collects all of a reader’s blogs and information sources and aggregates them into a news flow. I believe that many newspapers are not systematic in the way they consume news. And for many readers if a story isn’t on Twitter it doesn’t exist. But it isn’t true. There are a lot of things out there that we don’t read about and from which we would benefit. This is part one. Part two is that newspapers themselves could share their ‘rivers’ with readers. For you Wired people, for example, they would include the blogs that are Wired-like, what your reporters are reading, what influences them. It would have an impact on readers and on the editorial line. Over time, the flow would build up, and it would maybe end up being the biggest single change that any single newspaper can do. Many, however, do not want to use it because it would end up competing with the writers. ‘It would cut our own throat’, they say. But in the long term their throats will be cut anyway so you might as well capture the change and do it in a creative way. And think about where all this could lead because it’s only a first step and we don’t know which others might follow.”
Can you give us an example of an editorial project that you think is innovative?
“Quartz, which has implemented my outliner, Fargo. It’s a very innovative organization, managed by brilliant people. But ‘innovation’ and ‘news’ are two words that I don’t usually put together. What’s certainly true is that a lot of editorial projects like to define themselves as innovative: Vox, for example.”
Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight?
“Ah, he’s great. Since he left The New York Times I haven’t been following him closely, though. But he’ll be back in the limelight for midterm elections in the United States, later this year. What he says about experts is terribly true: they’re only filling space, they have no insight. They’re talking about their own opinions, not about what the public thinks, which has a no value whatsoever. I just stopped paying attention to that kind of journalism.”
And how is technological journalism doing?
“I think it’s very mediocre. More than anything else, it’s about money: it matters more than technology. And this is definitely hurting technology. The problem is that we don’t have a way to spread information about things that are really new: I do them all the time, and don’t get any coverage. When I launched Little Porkchop - a program that allows you to translate posts exceeding 140 characters in planned series of tweets, which are numbered and sent automatically at a rate of one per second - a few weeks ago, I got a lot of coverage, but because it’s about Twitter and because it’s controversial. I didn’t know, when I wrote it, that it wasn’t going to be considered an improvement in the use of Twitter. But I don’t care.”
Still here in Trieste you said that blogging platforms ought to be updated. How?
“Fargo is my most concise statement of how blogging ought to be updated. At the beginning the basic idea was to make it easier to edit a page: making your changes, hitting a button, submitting them. It wasn’t obvious at all, we had to work to get there. But there is much more to blogs and to websites then just a page. On WordPress to get from one post to another you have to exit the post, move to the next, choose to edit it... and in the meantime, you’ve completely lost the possibility to edit the previous one.”
“You can build a website editor such as Fargo that will enable you to change every piece of text without having to switch contexts, without having to navigate anywhere: just put the cursor over the text, click, expand it, make your changes, then close it up. That is where we’re going to go. If there’s any health at all to the technology industry, there will be a complete rewrite of how blogging software works, and that will be the basic idea: to view a whole website in a single document. But the leading blogging platforms aren’t paying any attention whatsoever, same for the press. Quartz is using it, but you can see it. Instead, the result ought to be invisible, a natural reading experience, seamless.”
Another thing from your speech at State of the Net, on Facebook: “We can’t do anything about it, it’s like time”. In accordance with the same logic we might say: “We can’t do anything against digital mass surveillance, it’s like time.” [Note: I think I said it's like weather, not time.]
“We can’t live in a world without Facebook. And we can’t live in a world without mass surveillance: I don’t think there is a way out. If I stood up and said, ‘Hey, NSA, stop spying on us!’, what effect would that have? None. Sure, it’s terrible that our government can’t control itself, but they were caught with their hands in our affairs and they’re not doing anything about it. And I don’t know what it takes. Snowden might have thought, and the rest of us might have thought, that once exposed there would be mass outrage. But there wasn’t, and I don’t think there will be.
Snowden says that the solution is technological: encryption.
“I don’t think so. If there were a technological solution, they would outlaw it. I believe that as of now we are living on the brink of fascism, on a worldwide basis. And the illusion that we had in the early days of the Web, that we’d broken free, was just that, an illusion. Governments were happy to let us believe that: why interfere with the illusion of freedom? And if we ever tried to do anything to get out of the prison they’ve put us in, then they’ll clamp down, and then we’ll really feel the weight of the fascism. The thing is that I don’t think there is a memory anymore of how bad that can be. Of course, I’m sure they remember in East Germany. But the United States had flirted with fascism in the McCarthy era, without ever really going beyond that. My grandfather had warned me about this, he explained to me exactly what fascism was. He told me that it nearly destroyed his life: during the war he had to escape from Eastern Europe to save his life. I realized back then how awful it is to live in a repressive society, and I think that if you think that the penalty for crossing a government is that kind of repression, then you already live in it: it’s already dominating you. And I believe that we’ve already there. Here in the U.S. we thought we were solving the problem by electing Obama. Nothing could be further from the truth: Obama is just a tool of whatever is really running our lives. We have to do our best with what we have, and I think none of us has enough power to stop all this.”
It’s hard to still believe in an open and free internet, with these premises.
“It is. I’ll keep acting as if it were: I don’t think I have all that much to lose.”