Speech and weblogs
Tuesday, April 8, 2003 by Dave Winer.
Earlier today I gave a talk at the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Following are my notes from the talk.
The Napster story
The Internet is the nicest distribution system for creative work that's ever been invented. Even that isn't a strong enough statement. Until the Internet came along creative people had to make deals with huge heartless companies to get their work distributed. This forced creativity through a very narrow funnel: the kind of stuff that fat executives can understand, and all they understand is the most crass kind of creativity, the kind of stuff that gets the largest number of people to cough up their credit cards. These people are usually fat and smelly and laugh cynically if anyone says that people create things to communicate. According to them, the only reason anyone would want to create things is to make money. If you have any other motive they think you're an idiot, and tell you so.
Unfortunately, at some level, the artists of the past thought the same way, but they were always frustrated because the fat smelly non-creative executive guys were good at stealing all the money, because even the most commercial of artists were still artists and given a choice, would forgoe the money (almost unconsciously) for the art. This is what the fat smelly assholes took advantage of. And they got very rich and hired lawyers and bought not just policitians but an entire politicial party, a big one, and they got some extra new laws passed to help throttle the most threatening technology to ever come along, and you know what I'm talking about -- it's the Internet.
Now a young guy named Shawn Fanning didn't understand how this worked, he just had a bunch of CDs he had ripped and he wanted to share them with his friends so he learned how to program and whipped up a hack called Napster. It worked. Everyone loved it. All of a sudden people were talking about music in supermarkets and on airplanes! This was truly remarkable. Music had gotten incredibly boring. Now, with the library of melodic memories, old and new, open for all, music was exciting again! What a change. Now instead of wanting to find a way to make money from the new technology, which of course would have required creativity, the fat smelly execs told their lawyers and politicians to stop it, which they did. We needed a media company that was run by an artist, but of course the art was all out of media companies by that time, if there ever had been art in the media companies (probably not, media is a word like "content" which makes art sound like a business).
But the cat was out of the bag, the train had left the station, the idea was out there, the people knew what could be, and what they wanted.
The Weblog story
Napster would have happened without the Web. It is just as much a child of email and instant messaging as it is related to the Web. The Web was a whole other thing. Weblogs are of the Web.
This is my version of the story of the invention of the Web. Please understand it's a slice, just one view.
Like a lot of technologies people told big stories about something called hypertext, but until Tim Berners-Lee came along there really wasn't something for ordinary people to use. He pushed aside a lot of hairy technical issues, didn't even try to solve them, and cobbled together something that was brain-dead simple and incredibly ugly, and it worked and it was wonderful. I overheard John Markoff of the Times ask at a cocktail party in the early 90s if it was as big as he thought it might be. Remarkably, it was even bigger. In the software world it's the biggest thing that has ever happened.
TBL's first website was a weblog. It presented links to other websites in reverse-chronologic order with comments. In the early days of the Web, the really early days (I wasn't there) TBL's weblog was the hub, and every new website was a spoke. Eventually the Web was growing too fast for one man to keep track of it so more weblogs were spawned, first at NCSA, then at Netscape, then a hiatus and then the mass movement of weblogs.
All this happened in five years. An incredible period between 1992 and 1997. Then the focus turned to making the tools easy to use so more people could use them. By 1999, Blogger shipped, then Manila and Pitas, and Groksoup, and LiveJournal, then Radio UserLand and Moveable Type, and dozens of other tools, aimed at every conceivable niche of weblog-land. A competitive market developed, built on protocols and formats that are joyously open and simple. A precious beginning for something that is a loop back to the America envisioned by Jefferson, except of course it isn't just happening in America -- like the Web it's a world wide thing. Maybe the most interesting weblogs today are in countries that have never tasted the kind of creative freedom we've squandered in America.
The two stories meet up
Now Napster ran into trouble because of an ill-considered legal defense (I'm not a lawyer) and not a great enough set of non-infringing uses. They didn't fail because they failed to get the smelly execs on their side, that was impossible. That would be like Tiny Tim getting Scrooge to be a mensch without seeing any ghosts. That part comes later.
But gradually we're putting together the Napster system as a bootstrap, using the Web as a basis, and we can do it safely because our tools are used by creative people in totally non-infringing ways and in areas where the fat smelly guys are evacuating, the written word. They aren't smart enough to see our end-run. And even if they were, they'd have to convince the Supreme Court to revoke the First Amendment. Don't worry, they've tried, remember the CDA, passed by Congress, signed by the President, but overturned by the court.
That's why it's especially important for creative people, programmers, to work with lawyers. That's why I, a programmer, went to work at a law school and not an engineering school.
One day, and that day is coming soon, a creative artist will use the weblog world to distribute a musical meme, good music, a catchy tune, and then sell a CD with a high-res scan of the same music, and that will undermine the smelly assholes and their cronies, forever. Say goodbye. That's their Ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Bing.
Weblogs are as important as having good lawyers and organizations like the EFF and Berkman Center. The lawyers are our defense. Weblogs are the offense. We push forward with weblogs with work that would make Jefferson and Franklin stand up and cheer. JFK would love what we're doing. We're not asking what the Internet can do for us, we're doing good works for the Internet.