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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I've been online since 1971 and I like to smoothe the way for everyone else. Among other things I co-founded Sympatico, the world's first easy-to-use Internet service (and Canada's largest).

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Friday, November 10, 2006

The Web 2.0 monoculture

I just have to speak up about this, because not only do I believe it’s bad for Web 2.0 but it’s proving to be bad for me personally. The Web 2.0 world is a monoculture: a system that has very low diversity.

As I began this post at the end of October (yes, I’ve been meaning to finish it for a little while) I checked for who else had written about this. It turned out that this was actually a pretty current topic and I was behind on my blog-reading, e.g. on October 16 Anil Dash posted Life or Death for Web 2.0, which I highly recommend to gain some understanding of the problem.

In his post, Dash refers to an article in that day’s Washington Post by Shankar Vedantam, Why Everyone You Know Thinks the Same as You, a scary article for those of us who are used to thinking of the Internet as a positive force for connecting people. Scary but I highly recommend reading it too (it isn’t long).

What do these names have in common: Anil Dash, Shankar Vedantam, Rohan Jayasekera? They’re all South Asian (Dash and I were born and raised in North America, while Vedantam moved from India to the USA in his early 20s). Perhaps there is something worth looking into here: are those of us who are North American, yet strongly influenced by a different cultural background, either more sensitive to or more inclined to be concerned about a perceived lack of thought diversity?

Note that I said “thought diversity”. Others have already expressed their concern about, in particular, a lack of diversity in ethnicity and gender. Sure, that’s an issue, but I think that will work itself out over time. Other types of insularity exist too, though, and get less recognition.

I co-founded Sympatico (Canada's largest ISP), which as far as I know was the world's first mass-market Internet service. One of our portal content people remarked to me one day that she was hoping for more diversity among us. I agreed, but we were thinking different things. She wanted people with physical disabilities, aboriginal people, etc. I wanted right-wingers.

Our group was pretty lefty, and this was not representative of the population we were serving. I recall being horrified when, long ago, I tried out Yahoo’s chatrooms and discovered that they were largely occupied by “trailer trash”. But if that’s the real population, let’s do our best to serve it.

Later I happened to hire someone who didn’t come from that lefty thoughtplace and in fact wore a mullet. Of course I hired him purely because he was really good, but getting more thought diversity was a very nice bonus as far as I was concerned.

Let’s talk about Apple. A lot of people in the 2.0 world love Apple and its products, and regard Microsoft with suspicion if not outright hatred. These same people profess to love open source and dislike monopolies — yet they ignore Apple’s closed-architecture approach with the Macintosh and the iPod, which may well have a lot to do with Apple’s success. As I see it, Apple is far more monopolistic than Microsoft is these days. Is it such a good thing that the Web 2.0 community is so Mac-heavy when this is so unrepresentative of the Internet-using population?

Then there’s age. I’m over 40 and in the Toronto geek community that means I’m a foreigner. (When I was a kid I would never have predicted that my skin colour would cease to be a problem and my age would become one.) I think there are two reasons: others think they can’t relate to me because I’m weird (they don’t know anyone else like me), and because this is a tech community they assume that I’m out of date (ironic given that they’re now rediscovering things from the 1970s, as I wrote earlier).

Music? Apparently the best musicians all have names starting with “DJ”. So much for originality in names, let alone content (if you remix something that someone else did, in the 2.0 world you somehow get more kudos than the original artist).

Back to Anil Dash, Shankar Vedantam and me. It seems that we have a shared inclination to spread things to the general population, which I don’t think is the case among most Web 2.0 people, who want to spread things to each other. I take great pride in having helped spread the Internet to the masses in Canada (and having set an example for similarly-minded people in other countries). Dash encourages the masses to use spreadsheets for all kinds of things, as he does. Vedantam says that “I moved into science journalism because it seemed like a very neat way to capitalize on knowledge that I already had. In modern culture there is a huge knowledge base, but we haven’t spread that knowledge very well. I feel that spreading it may be as important as generating it or acquiring it.”

So if you believe that Web 2.0 has monocultural problems, do your best to diversify its population — and not just in ethnicity and gender. Start by not thumbing your nose at anyone who uses Microsoft Windows, votes Republican/Conservative/equivalent, is over 40, or likes to listen to Shakira.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post Rohan. Not only pointed but nicely penned.

What I'd like your opinion on (and I read Shankar's post) is whether you think 2.0 users (as opposed to its elites) are truly a monoculture. You say that "It seems that we have a shared inclination to spread things to the general population, which I don’t think is the case among most Web 2.0 people, who want to spread things to each other."

Well yes, with the understanding that 2.0 often tries to serve niched communities as an initial business practice. And no, in that the successful ones grow past that limitation.

Freshbooks has 100,000 users. Are they homogenaic? Would your post be supported if you looked at their user demographics?
Now, I agree with you to some extent. 2.0 elites are something of a monoculture: under 30, primarily white males who are politically and ethically post-modern. I'm just not sure that their users ultimately will be - or that they want them to be.

Lets look at Apple's iPod. It began in a niche market - in the hands of an ultra early-adopting monoculture. Hell I'm a tech nut and didn't get one until the second generation..are iPod users a monoculture now? Hardly. Success predicated heterogenaic adoption.

Again, wonderful post. This is something to chew on.

Saturday, November 11, 2006 at 10:11:00 a.m. EST  
Blogger Rohan Jayasekera said...

Thanks for the comment, Trevor!

To answer your question, I think the users of many 2.0 applications (such as are in the same monoculture as the creators, while those of other 2.0 applications (such as Freshbooks) aren't. Freshbooks is clearly intended for the masses; I don't know whether is (if it is, I don't think the intention will become a reality).

For the most part, 2.0 efforts hope to reach a broader audience than "the 53651 people who read TechCrunch". A lot of 2.0-heads truly believe that the masses will catch up with them, that they'll grow to understand and love the new creations. Sure, for some of the current crop of 2.0 apps that will happen, but for most I don't think it will: the masses will never become just like the elites. What is missing is a willingness to meet the masses where they are, or even halfway. I'm reminded of Tom Wolfe's excellent book "From Bauhaus to Our House" where he describes how the Bauhaus architects believed that the occupants of buildings should be required to conform to the buildings rather than the other way around. For example, as I recall from the book (I can't find my copy), the window shades in the Toronto-Dominion Centre were originally specified by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to be either fully up or fully down, to make the building look nicer from the outside than if the shades could be at all kinds of heights. He eventually reluctantly agreed to compromise and also allow 50% down.

The result of this arrogance will be a lot of failures that will be blamed on the users' being too "stupid", "old-fashioned", or whatever to "get it". And the arrogance is only fueled by hanging out with the like-minded elites at Mike Arrington's parties and reading each other's blogs.

Freshbooks is an example of what can be accomplished by a 2.0 company that understands that its users generally don't know or care what "2.0" is. Sure, a great new product needs to lead the market by introducing something people aren't used to, and that is always a gamble. But once there is something of a user base, it's time to shift from mostly talking to mostly listening. The thing is, if that user base is the same monoculture the creators came from, I don't think there's much chance of growing into the larger population. So while starting with a niche community and growing from there can be a good strategy, I don't think that's true if the niche is the 2.0 community itself.

Again, thanks for the thoughtful comment!

Saturday, November 11, 2006 at 4:39:00 p.m. EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you get triple points if you're a 40-year-old female who listens to Shakira? :-)

Sunday, November 12, 2006 at 6:10:00 p.m. EST  
Blogger Rohan Jayasekera said...

Yes you do, Christina, but why stop there? You can have even more points if you watch WWE Wrestling on your TV that has a bust of Elvis on top of it.

Monday, November 13, 2006 at 5:01:00 p.m. EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rohan - how are you suffering or hurting from things? What do you suggest needs to be done, specifically as we look at Toronto.

Saturday, December 2, 2006 at 4:01:00 p.m. EST  
Blogger Rohan Jayasekera said...

Dave, thanks for dropping by again. Where this issue hits me personally is ageism. The main problem is that assumptions seem to be made that innovation, energy, and understanding of the market for Web 2.0 products/services are limited to people under 35. This misconception does not exist in Silicon Valley, where many energetic innovators have been active for a long time and are highly respected, but in Toronto we don’t have that tradition. It’s not even an Ontario thing: Waterloo, only 100 km away, is quite different, because of the overarching effects of the University of Waterloo. At Toronto BarCamps and DemoCamps, the only university faculty participant I know of is Prof. Greg Wilson of the University of Toronto. (At one DemoCamp he asked for a show of hands from whoever else remembered Unix Version 7. Mine was the only hand.)

There is also a mistaken belief that all this Web-based application stuff is new and that there is nothing to be learned from history, when in fact this is just the latest implementation of online systems that have been around since the 1960s. Nicholas Carr, for instance, writes that what he calls the first age of computing, before the second age of client-server, “had the disadvantage of being impersonal; individuals couldn’t apply computing to their personal tasks when they had to go through a batch-processing regime”. He’s leaving out things like Unix (whose First Edition appeared in 1971), a first-age system which is most popularly carried on these days as Linux. Unix wasn’t widespread, but there were lots of other online systems as well (I used one in high school). And AOL, another online system, predates the public Internet, to which it contributed such things as instant messaging with buddy lists.

In other fields, people who have been around for a while get some credit for experience. Here, the prevailing belief is that everything is new and consequently there is no such thing as experience. Or to look at it another way, any experience is considered not to apply to what’s happening now, and consequently to be either irrelevant or even negative.

A similar situation existed during the dot-com boom, when my relationship with my “Chief Strategist” boss in 2000 suffered because I didn’t believe in a “New Economy”. Back then the young hipsters simply assumed that older people were too set in their ways to get their heads around the concept of a New Economy, when in fact the skeptics had their reasons for not drinking the Kool-Aid. And before that it was said that nothing about the Internet was predictable; well, I’m happy to say that the predictions laid out in the business plan for Sympatico have largely proven correct.

I happen to be a huge fan of Web 2.0, but I don’t think it’s something completely new to human understanding.

You asked what I suggest be done, specifically in Toronto. I think I would just repeat how I ended the post: I suggest that all those in the community who would like it to be broader make a personal effort to avoid dismissing those people who don’t fit the usual profile, and that those who are so inclined go further and actively reach out to such “outsiders”. Jay Goldman, for instance, invited Jenny McCarthy to DemoCamp. In my case, I’m thinking that I should try to get more over-40s to DemoCamp, though I might wait for the dust to settle from whatever changes will be made to the format.

Monday, December 4, 2006 at 12:35:00 a.m. EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rohan - ok, so it sounds like the underlined problem that you seem to be facing is one of discrimination. Not new, will NEVER go away because as long as there are difference between two people the other will find a reason to complain or seperate them. So how is it that Ray Ozzie has made a "come back", he isn't in the Valley and what did he really do after his claim to fame of Lotus Notes?
Sure it isn't always easy being the only one that looks like you in the room (you insert your own difference here), but end of the day if change is going to happen it has to start with you. So I applaude you to coming back to the room time after time and I do agree that perhaps you have to start to bring "others".

Everyone is so caught up on labels such as "Web 2.0", but isn't that part of the problem, everytime we use a label we create seperate groups of people. Hmm, are we not all seeing a pattern here...

Monday, December 4, 2006 at 12:04:00 p.m. EST  
Blogger Rohan Jayasekera said...

Dave, I agree that discrimination will never go away, but it can be reduced by building awareness among those who might participate in it without even realizing it. There’s a reason why I say things like “those in the community who would like it to be broader” and “those who are so inclined”: not everyone cares about discrimination, but many do and are interested in addressing it, even in a small way.

Ray Ozzie is not an example of any lack of discrimination, because he didn’t just make a “comeback” out of nowhere; in fact he didn’t need a comeback at all because he never left. After Lotus Notes, he created Groove, a collaboration system that is primarily used with Microsoft Office. Microsoft was very interested, and eventually bought the company.

Microsoft is not a Valley company, but even if it were that wouldn’t be relevant, because notice that I said that age discrimination is not a problem in the Valley in the way it is here in Toronto, because it has a long tech history. Toronto simply isn’t a tech-oriented town even though there’s a fair bit of tech going on here. It’s Canada’s financial centre, English Canada’s media centre, location of one of the world’s top film festivals, and other things, but it’s not a tech centre the way that the Valley, Seattle, and Waterloo are. Even in Ottawa, where the main business is government, tech is way more prominent than it is in Toronto.

You make a good point that the use of labels such as “Web 2.0” can contribute to the problem. Labels are very useful, though, as Kathy Sierra recently wrote about, so I think all we can do is to use them as well as possible, in particular avoiding uses that are unintentionally exclusionary.

Monday, December 4, 2006 at 4:27:00 p.m. EST  

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