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In conversation with author paul ford on media, the web and life online

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Whether code or copy, Paul Ford speaks the language. A true digital native, Ford took Harper’s Magazine to the Web, converting its 250,000 page archive to an on-line powerhouse; he’s written for NPR, TheMorningNews.org, XML.com, and the National Information Standards Organization’s Information Standards Quarterly.

Click here to watch video
http://www.metanomics.net/show/all_digital_in_conversation_with_author_paul_ford_on_media_the_web_and_life/

Whether code or copy, Paul Ford speaks the language. A true digital native, Ford took Harper’s Magazine to the Web, converting its 250,000 page archive to an on-line powerhouse; he’s written for NPR, TheMorningNews.org, XML.com, and the National Information Standards Organization’s Information Standards Quarterly.

Click here to watch video
http://www.metanomics.net/show/all_digital_in_conversation_with_author_paul_ford_on_media_the_web_and_life/

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In conversation with author paul ford on media, the web and life online

  1. 1. METANOMICS: ALL DIGITAL: IN CONVERSATION WITH <br />PAUL FORD ON MEDIA, THE WEB AND LIFE ONLINE<br />FEBRUARY 21, 2011<br />ANNOUNCER: Metanomics is owned and operated by Remedy and Dusan Writer's Metaverse. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Hi. I'm Robert Bloomfield, professor at Cornell University's Johnson Graduate School of Management. Today we continue exploring Virtual Worlds in the larger sphere of social media, culture, enterprise and policy. Naturally, our discussion about Virtual Worlds takes place in a Virtual World. So join us. This is Metanomics. <br />ANNOUNCER: Metanomics is filmed today in front of a live audience at our studios in Second Life. We are pleased to broadcast weekly to our event partners and to welcome discussion. We use ChatBridge technology to allow viewers to comment during the show. Metanomics is sponsored by the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University. Welcome. This is Metanomics. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Welcome to Metanomics. Today our guest is Paul Ford, a freelance writer, computer programmer, web designer, blogger and on and on. He was an editor at Harper's Magazine for about half a decade and worked on their archive project in 2007. Many of our viewers, I think, know him as the author of ftrain.com, his blog. But he's also an author of a novel Gary Benchley, Rock Star, and has done a lot of very interesting things. So, Paul, welcome to Metanomics. <br />PAUL FORD: Thank you so much, Beyers, and thank you for inviting me into your community. This is very, very fun. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Well, we're glad to have you here, especially so that we can get your advice because it occurs to me that we never consulted you when we started this. I have to say one of my favorite blog posts about the internet was one that you wrote just earlier this year I think it was, and it's called The Web is a Customer Service Medium, but the phrase that I think everyone is going to remember is, quot; Why wasn't I consulted?quot; Let's start with that phrase. Can you tell us what drove you to write that? <br />PAUL FORD: I'll tell you, because I think, like many people here, I've been online since the early '90s and have built many websites. I made a strange decision when I was about 30 years old, so about six years ago, to go into publishing, which is not an industry that has a great relationship with the web. There's a lot of talk in publishing on sort of what the web is for, and everyone kept saying, quot; We know what it's for. We're going to figure out a way to get books on line and things like that.quot; I hit a point of frustration where, as someone who develops websites, whenever you launch a new website, man! do people come and tell you how you screwed it up. And, if you're part of an online community, as everyone in this room is, there's a real tendency of human beings to inform you as to the norms of the community and to help you see things kind of, in quotes, quot; correctly.quot; Right? <br />And the more that I worked on the web and the more that I worked online and watched what happens when you launch things and how people react, I came to the turn that there is this sort of fundamental urge, just like sort of real primitive urge that people online--it’s tapped into this where, when something new comes out, when someone expresses an opinion or posts a video, the audience doesn't tend to go, quot; Let me look at that.quot; Their first reaction is very often, quot; Why wasn't I consulted? Could you please explain to me why did you go ahead and publish this without checking for me?quot; And then their first opinions will be like, quot; I like the design.quot; I mean that's a great thing; it's like the GAP logo. <br />I don't know if everyone saw this, but the GAP came out with a new logo that, to my eyes and I think most eyes, it looked terrible. It looked like something you'd do in PowerPoint. But at the same time, the entire internet rose up as one and became very angry about the GAP logo, to the point that the GAP had to backpeddle. That's what I'm talking about. There's this urge to say, people to stand up and go, quot; Why wasn't I consulted?quot; And the way that works is, we take that seriously. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: How do you tie that to The web is a customer service medium? <br />PAUL FORD: Well, I guess I would say that there's a realI think that one flows out of the other. Right? So if you have a medium where the fundamental question is, quot; Why wasn't I consulted,quot; then you want to have relationships with people that have meaning along those lines. So if it's not for publishing, if it's not for distributing things as blocks of content and getting people to pay for them, if it's not just purely for media distribution, if it doesn't fit into a model but you have this tremendous possibility for interaction, then I think that the one thing left to you, the thing that you can really do right online and also on the web, but in general, is customer service. <br />And you saw some actually some great examples here. I remember when Second Life had this huge cultural footprint. We were talking about this earlier, right? And everybody was setting up their shops in Second Life, and it was supposed to be very exciting, and you were supposed to go have this experience. But then it was kind of one way. They build it, and they chatted a little bit, and, as far as I can tell, most of that is gone. What strikes me about that is that they didn't interact with the community. They didn't listen to the community, and they didn't want the community to tell them sort of what it wanted. So they didn't actually create a service experience. People think that they're doing that when they jump into online environments. They think that they are interacting just by being here, but it's actually something far more fundamental. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Now you're a web designer. <br />PAUL FORD: I would not<br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Okay, if I got it wrong, correct me on that. <br />PAUL FORD: I can put together a website, and, if I'm wise, I work with a designer to help me along. I sometimes work in resourceconstrained environments, in which I can't afford design, which is always very, very sad and difficult. So in that case, I will whip together a site. I would call myself more of a site architect, I think, of URLs and the structure and the way that things fit together, which has elements of design thinking. But other aspects of design thinking I feel there are people who are better at it, much, much better at it than I am. Of course, I didn't mean to cut you off there. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: No, no, that's okay. Let's just sick with this for a minute. Now I'm forgetting the name of your business: Awesome? <br />PAUL FORD: Oh, oh, SoMuchAwesome. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Yeah. I keep on wanting to call it Bucket Full of Awesome, but it's only SoMuchAwesome. So tell us about that business. <br />PAUL FORD: That is actually my design partner, a gentleman named Al Rotches, R O T C H E S, who is a wonderful web designer. He's just good at making people click on things. He did work for the Obama campaign and lots of folks like that. That is just a way, it's an umbrella, it's a way for me to keep building sites. One thing that's funny is that somebody who works in publishing and has been an editor there are opportunities for me to become a goofy strategy guy who talks a lot and writes a lot of memos. <br />I'm anxious about that because I've noticed that when people do it, a lot of times they're out of work after a couple years. I want to just keep building sites, writing code, working with designers and keeping my hands as dirty as they get on a keyboard. And so that's what that's about. That's about Al and I enjoying putting together websites, writing some code and putting stuff out there and making sure that the bills are paid. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: That's always a nice thing. Especially these years. I understand if you don't want to refer to specific clients, but I'm curious how your Why wasn't I consulted? and Web is a customer service medium, how those ideas influence what you are doing with SoMuchAwesome or perhaps were influenced by it. <br />PAUL FORD: Well, okay. It was very interesting, what I'll talk about is watching something propagate virally, which I've never had a piece. And actually what's happened I've had things in the past that I've written, that have had lots and lots of readers. But this was very interesting to me, because I haven't been doing a lot of writing in the last few years, and putting this piece out and watching the sort of awesome power of Twitter to put a message out into the world was really curious. What really struck me is that I wrote this piece, having a good time for myself, mostly to kind of amuse myself and put it on my blog. I didn't try to pitch it somewhere else. We got someone else to publish it, and it got a lot of pickup, and most of the word about it was spread through Twitter. <br />What I realized was happening is that because I had come up with slogans, I'd come up with a neologism in the term the Gutenbourgeois, referring to people who are of the printing press and feel good about themselves for disliking digital media. I came up with The Web as a Customer Service Medium and I used Why wasn't I consulted?, and these things were just me, like I said, having a good time in sloganeering. That worked so well for Twitter. It's one of those things where I don't necessarily want to stop everything I'm doing as a writer and start coming up with short slogans, but I like to think about that. I like to think about the impact of language. <br />And so what was weird is that the set of ideas was really carried along on the slogans, and then I watched as it went from my community of bloggers and web nerds and they wrote a little bit about it on Twitter, maybe on their blogs. I realized it was getting to be a big piece for me so maybe tens or hundreds of thousands of readers, but not as big as ten minutes of any TV news program, but, still big for me. I watched it spread. What would happen is the community would talk about it and retweet it and discuss it. And then a member of that community, who is sort of a bridge person, would then say something about the piece, and then the people who were in another community that was connected to the first community, by that individual, would pick up on it. <br />So it would go community to community, with these individuals in between connecting the lines until it hitand this was very interesting to meTim O'Reilly, of the O'Reilly Publishing Company, he has 1.5 million followers, and, as far as I can tell, they are spread across everything, and, when he says something, they listen, they talk about it, and they read it. He has a very surprising cultural footprint, at least when you're running a little web server, and it just melts under the traffic. And I've been on the end of big traffic before. I've been on Drudge Report and stuff like that. But Tim O'Reilly brought down my server. I just thought that was interesting, like being able to watch that idea propagate community to community, person to person. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: And you got your 140 characters of fame. <br />PAUL FORD: I got my 140 characters of fame. But because, really because it worked for Twitter; these short little phrases worked for Twitter. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: I see Sonitus Randt in the backchat saying, quot; I don't tweet much, but I did about that WWIC, Why wasn't I consulted? post. Had to share. It was the same for me. I read that, and the first thing I had to do was tell my wife about the new acronym that we can all use: WWIC. Is it in the Urban Dictionary yet, do you know? <br />PAUL FORD: I doubt it. We can check. That's great actually. That's very funny. Now what was interesting about it, watching it spread that way, no, no, I mean watching people tweet it and getting that interaction, people in publishing, which was kind of the audience I was writing for, I was trying to say, quot; Look, guys, we keep having this discussion, and you keep asking me to help you build a website. You need to understand that this doesn't work the way that you're hoping it will work. That was why I was writing the piece.quot; They shrugged it off a little bit. It wasn't exactly good news for them, but when I got a tremendous amount of reaction from the communities who actually build websites and deal with communities on a daytoday basis, that's who was led. <br />And thinking back on it, that's really who I should have been writing for. That's where I'm from more than anything. You put up a website, and everybody yells at you, and that's part of the job. I think what's weird actually, everybody yells at everybody for everything. They send letters. They scold or whatever. But it's just so immediate now. You do something, and immediately 50 people on a forum that you may be a member of, that you love, just null it; they forget that you're just like them. They immediately assume that you are now a giant. It doesn't matter how small a thing you're doing, everyone assumes that there's at least a large company behind it and lots of people working and doing QA, and instead you've launched this little thing because you're trying your hardest, and they just beat on it with hammers. Which is, that's part of the joy of it. After a while it's just knowing that the tidal wave of pure human outrage is going to come, and the primates are going to run into your room and pound on things, and figuring out how you're going to manage that ahead of time. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: I'd like to follow up on this because you're getting into your philosophy of the web, and you wrote a post a long time ago called Medium of Choice, where you pulled together a list of 20 principles that you try to follow in your web writing. The last one, and I'd just like to start there, the last one is, quot; The web is my medium of choice, not a medium of last resort.quot; Why do you emphasize that? <br />PAUL FORD: Okay, so first of all, the era in which I was writing that, trying to be a serious writer online was seen as ridiculous. It wasn't a place where people<br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: And this was what, was it 2003? <br />PAUL FORD: I would say that's about 2003. Yeah. So there was some stuff going on, but it wasn't like the blogging world was really picking up. Gawker was a thing unto itself. There was a sense of something happening, but it was mostly like if you were going to be taken seriously online, you should affiliate yourself with a publishing company or with a magazine, which is what I ended up doing. But there wasn't this sense that the web was its own thing as a place for literary expression. <br />I actually have to be honest, I see quite a bit of interesting work going on, but I still don't get that sense. When I hear about people talk about writing online, they talk a lot about how to optimize yourself so that you get more readers and how to tweet and how to create a platform and a personal brand and less about how to create something of literary quality that might endure. That's all well and good. I mean I think that's just typical for any medium because you want to get a strategy to be an effective, rhetorical strategist. But, at the same time, I was always trying to do that, especially back then when not only was no one reading, but no one cared, and they were all actually embarrassed that you were trying to write online and do interesting work. <br />I just love the web. I was in print for five years. I was working at an old magazine. I brought it online but I really missed--they were talking about making me a senior editor. I was going to do lots of good, oldfashioned literary work, but what I really missed was coding little websites, getting it to start working, figuring out how to model the data and putting it up. That's the best part. So it is absolutely one hundred percent my medium of choice. After I wrote that piece, I went and tried to refute and tried to do something else and wrote a novel, on paper, and tried to be more sort of of the classic print world. That's not it for me. I need to be able to have links. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Now, the first principle that you laid out was, quot; I tried to create a private reading experience for each ftrain reader.” I'm hoping you can elaborate on that and also maybe connect it back to your earlier comments about community and feedback and that urge that everyone has to tell people what they would have said, if they were consulted, because they seem kind of contradictory. <br />PAUL FORD: Well, I think actually what you're reading there is me saying--in terms of private reading experience, all the code on that site was written by me. Actually, at that point, I was trying to write tools to make an easier and more adaptable reading experience for individuals so they could change font and keep track of bookmarks and things like that. I took several stabs at that, and it was always a mess. It would always break, and finally I took any of that off the sites. Another thing there too is the ability for people to chat and leave notes as they were browsing around. <br />But also, there's again a pure rhetoric and style. I want to write in such a way that it's an individual connection rather than broadcast. I don't want to do journalism. I have opportunities to do journalism. It's a tremendous amount of work. It's a tremendous amount of skill. And it takes an enormous amount of time. There are people who do a wonderful job at it. What I want to do is write little stories and essays, manifestos and play with ideas and throw that over the wall and see what happens. In doing so, I feel that I'm always trying to talk to one person, not to millions of people. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Okay. You say your sixth principle is, quot; I have a onemonth, oneyear, twoyear, fiveyear, tenyear, 20year and 50year plan for how I will write ftrain. So I guess we're finishing up; the fiveyear plan's come and gone, and now we're on ten years. You can either tell us the embarrassing stories about how your plans materialized in completely different ways from what you expected or maybe share with us what your plan is for the next five, ten years. <br />PAUL FORD: I guess what I would say is, I actually am a big fan of that idea of having a 50year plan. I have calendared aspects of my life in Google Calendar out 20 or 30 years, just in general, like I'll meet someone who's a little bit older, who's driving me up the wall and talking endlessly about their career. I'll go make a note that, 30 years from now, I shouldn't be talking about my career all that much, or I should have a plan for what comes next. I actually really like that kind of planning. The key thing is because I ended up on this very strange career path, well, not that strange, but doing a lot of work outside of ftrain, doing a lot of writing elsewhere, I neglected the site, and I still have to figure that out whether I want to start something new or renew my vows to my blog. <br />But, in terms of a longterm plan, the strategy has stayed about the same. The tenyear I think I definitely hit, which was have an audience, have a voice. I remember getting out of college and going, quot; It's going to take you about ten years before you can write a somewhat decent sentence, not a great one, but an okay one.quot; I worked at that pretty hard for about ten years, and, as far as I can tell and from the outside feedback I get, I figured that out. So I would say that it's really that small, I mean that's the goal. And now the goal is to take what I've learnedI'm doing a little teaching here and thereand to decentralize it as much as possible. Don't try to build authority, and don't try to create the powerful voice and have a million readers. <br />What I want to do is help other people write, help other people be creative, figure out good strategies for communicating what I've learned about technology, talk about things like the fact that neologisms work on Twitter because that's fun and see what other people come up with. So I guess the longer plan is take what I've learned and any power that I have, decentralize it and give it away. The 20year and 50year plan: the 50year plan has always been a fully autonomous consciousness that the site will become selfaware. That's always the goal. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: So that must be because the next principle that I was going to ask you about is that you have quot; A plan for ftrain to continue if I die.quot; So what, you'll have it write its own posts? <br />PAUL FORD: Hopefully I won't have to. Yeah, hopefully, it'll take over. As long as it doesn't kill me, I'm fine. But, yeah, that turns out to be a very tricky problem. I thought I had it solved, but I really didn't. Unless you are completely publicdomaining everything, which is fineit's also a good solutionbut by maintaining the copyright and paying for my own hosting and not simply putting things on archive.org, I don't have a strategy that really works right now for maintaining this site after I die. So it's something I have to solve. <br />But I had a dear friend who had a wonderful web presence that, after she passed away, atrophied. Her name was Leslie Harpold. And she just had great work, good writing, tons of art, and she died young. I think about that a lot, where the way that her stuff went away. The domains expired. They were taken over by domain squatters. And there's actually been quite a bit written about it recently. There was a big piece in the New York Times Magazine, about a month ago, about digital afterlives. So there's a lot of discussion about that, but no truly, as far as I can tell, no real answers. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Let's move on to another tool that you posted about, which I think will bring us a little bit more into the business of publishing and particularly longform articles, more than just your quick little blog post. So you wrote about a product called Readability. Just give us a description of what it is and what you like about it. <br />PAUL FORD: Readability is very well known as a bookmark clip that reformats text in a web browser into a very, very clean, uncluttered view. There is a new version of Readability, as of February 1st, that both provides that view and allows people to bookmark and keep track of longerform things they want to read in that view. But also, as they save things, it takes a subscription fee and distributes that to the writers and the publishing companies that created these pieces. So the idea is, if a reader wants to have this experience, the writer should be given something in return for allowing their pieces to be read in this nice, clean environment. <br />I've been talking about this with the Readability team for a while. I've known them for a good bit, and they asked me if I'd be an advisor. What I like about them, I think they would agree too no one is sure exactly how online payments are going to work, but this certainly is a way. I've been using it. You don't have to think about it. You just throw five bucks in a month, and they're going to cut the checks to different writers, and we're all going to see what happens. I like it because it seems very positive. It's just like, quot; Here, read this. It looks really nice.quot; You're going to give these people a couple bucks, and let's see what happens. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: So when you say toss in five bucks a months, I'm just curious, can you give us a sense of how much you can read for five bucks? <br />PAUL FORD: Well, that's the thing. What it does, it's the opposite of what you're thinking. It splits the five bucks among everything you read. So it feels a little paradoxical in that somebody put in five bucks for the service. They read five pieces, everybody gets a dollar. They read 50 pieces, everybody gets ten cents. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Whatever. Onefiftieth of it. <br />PAUL FORD: You go, quot; What happened?quot; quot; Oh, ten cents.quot; The idea there is just to make it so you don't have to think. So you can just go like, quot; Look. I want to give money back to web content. I'm going to keep track of the things that I like to read in this format. It works well with Instapaper on the iPad, etcetera, etcetera. I'm going to hold onto those pieces, and, at the end of each month, I'm going to spread the money around between the ones that I like.quot; That way you don't have to sit there and go, quot; Do I want to give them a dime? Do I want to put something in their tip jar? Did I really like it?quot; <br />So, for me, that's actually very attractive, getting rid of the cognitive overhead and going like, quot; Well, maybe I ended up not liking that essay, but whatever, they're going to get seven cents out of me anyway. What the hell. Because other people will also get seven cents, that I really liked.quot; <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Would this only be posts that are on blogs, that aren't Harper's or the Atlantic or whatever? <br />PAUL FORD: Oh, no. This can be absolutely anything. Absolutely anything. But it's optimized for longerform stuff and for working on mobile devices as well. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: So Dusan Writer has a question related to what we're talking about. He asks, quot; Okay. So coming from Harper's, I want to know, is there a future for magazines?quot; <br />PAUL FORD: Let's think about that. I mean, look, yes. It's a tricky thing because we've been through all of this stuff in different ways before. Editors in the '40s and '30s were constantly being asked to come up with strategies for how they're going to deal with radio, the omnipresent threat of allthetime news, and what's going to happen now. So the different thing, of course, is that magazines didn't give all of their content away over the radio, which I think does have a longterm effect on how people perceive the value of what you do. So I would say, look, just to get down to it, the magazines have a future online. Yes, but are they being built from kind of good first principles that are really native to the web? They might have more of a future as apps, as walled gardens where people have more control than they do as pure web properties because you really need to build them up with the idea. <br />I'm thinking now about a new magazine that'd be fun to launch. This is me saying I'm going to take some money out of my bank account and completely squander it. I don't have any thoughts of real success, but I would like to do a magazine about technology. Right? I've been talking to people about what's the way to do it. It's purely web and internet first. What I would say there is, start with the community and figure out what the subject's going to be and build tools so that everybody can keep track of these subjects so that an interested community arises. <br />Maybe it's a bookmark clip so that, as people are browsing the web, they can contribute and take note of certain things. Maybe it's a layer on top of Wikipedia so you can browse in a more informed way and feed back into a database. But there's also going to need to be tools to communicate and talk amongst yourselves, as a member of that community. And then create that community, have an editorial strategy, but, as an editor, as the editor of this publication, your first job is to be a moderator and be a member of that community, and then see what rises up out of that. <br />Basically, if you're going to make that a magazine, make that magazine the house organ for the community that you are creating. And I think that could sustain because it's less of a concept of subscribership and more of a concept of membership, and that might have some legs. It seems like things where people are members have more luck getting money out of people and getting them to work to keep the community thriving than things that are just purely broadcast, like, quot; We're going to talk, and you're going to listen.quot; <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Okay. Thank you. Very interesting. You've experimented with some unusual media, and I'm thinking here of your novel, your serialized novel about Gary Benchley. It's your book. Can you give us the quick trailer for this and especially I think people are going to be very interested to hear the story about setting up an email address for him. <br />PAUL FORD: Yeah, that's exactly right. I wrote a book, years ago now, again 2003. It started as a website I've long been affiliated with and very lucky to be affiliated with, called themorningnews.org and just a couple very lovely human beings, or three very lovely human beings who run that site. I've known them for many years, and they always let me do fun and weird stuff. One of the things I did back then was create a hoax, sort of hipster guy whose named Gary Benchley, who wrote about his adventures in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, at sort of the peak of the Indie rock scene there. So that was a lot of fun. <br />I just had a tremendous amount of fun just poking at New York conventions. Let me make fun of everyone, bloggers, hipsters and young people, branding companies, and it was sort of my whole life. I was just able to poke holes in it. And so mostly it was me mocking myself. Because I guess people got a kick out of it, and they liked the character, and that got bought and commissioned as a novel by Plume, which is part of Penguin. So it's a weird way to write a novel. Your first novel under a deadline is a very strange thing because I had no idea what I was doing, and I had to get to the end of the novel somehow. But it was good, and I got it done, and it went out. It sold a few copies, and I learned a lot about how people read and don't read. So that was that. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: The experiment with the hoax aspect of it, you view as successful? <br />PAUL FORD: It's very fun. I'm a little less likely to pull off a hoax than I used to be, but I loved that aspect of the web, where you could just reinvent yourself as a person now and then. I mean obviously, look, we're here now in Second Life. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: By the way, you look marvelous. <br />PAUL FORD: Thank you. And you too. So does everybody out there in the audience. But, yeah, I mean I love that aspect. One of the first things I did when the web was coming around isthis will strike a lot of people as being in poor tastebut my roommate, in college, and I so I mean we were like 20, we created a page that purported to prove that Jerry Garcia had been assassinated. We were totally neutral on Jerry Garcia, but I always liked him because--I'm not so much a fan of the Dead's music, but I always liked the Merry Pranksters. He was a real sort of inveterate prankster. So I was like, quot; Well, this will be fun.quot; <br />So again, it's '94 maybe at that point, and we created a bunch of audio files that were just severely slowed down, that pretended to show him taking a bullet during a performance of Sugar Magnolia. It was like [SPEAKS IN SLOWED VOICE] thing that you would hear. People did not respond well. Actually, the press took it seriously. There was a little bit in the Philadelphia Enquirer about how these crazy people believe that Jerry Garcia had been assassinated. Because back then actually, stuff on the web, everybody was just like, quot; These people are crazy. They believe this.quot; And there wasn't that sense that anybody was pulling your leg. <br />I don't know if you remember there was this thing, it was Bonsai Kitten, where they were little cats in little glass boxes. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Oh, right. Yes, I do remember that. <br />PAUL FORD: People took it dead seriously. There were death threats against Bonsai Kitten. Then it was just cats in boxes. Maybe they shouldn't have been in there, but I'm going to bet those cats were okay. But that, to me, that site was emblematic of the early web. I loved a good hoax, and it was great. I set up an email for Gary, the character, and I got tons of email from people, many of whom were like, quot; I can't tell if you're real or not.quot; And that was actually the real fun of it, more than just people just believing he was real, was getting them to puzzle through whether he was or wasn't because it meant that they were actually reading. <br />They were actually focused. They were looking for clues. They were having a good time figuring out if I was pulling their leg or not. And so a certain number of people, a few people were actually upset when the hoax was revealed, but an awful lot of people that I spoke to and who sent emails were like, quot; That was a pretty good joke. You're kind of an ass for doing that. That's okay. Good job.quot; <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Tammy Nowotny, in the backchat, is asking, quot; Will there be a sequel?quot; <br />PAUL FORD: There will not be a sequel. I am moving on to new subjects. That's five years ago, six years ago. Now I've got a couple different writing projects, none of which I seem to ever complete. I've got these nice big notes files, with ten, 20, 30,000 words for very different kinds of novels, so we'll see if I ever come up with it or not. But, no, I think that character and that part of my life is fully retired. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: I can imagine you have difficulty finding the time to write another novel because of all the things that you are doing. One struck me as a very unusual thing to do: You have written sixword reviews of 1,302 songs that are on digital online content MP3s for the South By Southwest event. I guess you did that last year as well. <br />PAUL FORD: Didn't do it last year. I did it the year before and the year before that. The year before that it was 763, and the next year it was 1,300. And then after that I was like, quot; This is madness. I will never do this again.quot; <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: It does seem like madness, and I admit I'm kind of surprised you did it the first time. What drove you to do that? <br />PAUL FORD: Actually a tremendous faith in web content and a love for form. This is a great thing about the web is, you find a corpus like that, like just this very animated <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: This is your version of a haiku or something. <br />PAUL FORD: Exactly. I mean you have this archive of 1,300 songs, and you have your own creativity to puzzle out what--okay, so there's a few things that go on. First is, I see this collection of MP3 files, and that's exciting and fun just to listen to the music. And then I start to look at it. I love archives. I love sort of triaging and figuring out how archives work. Then you start to think, quot; Well, how can I deal with this archive? What could I do to make any kind of meaning out of it?quot; And I'm like, quot; Well, I could write reviews.quot; But they have to be short. I mean if it's 763, as you do the math on these things: 763 times 6, it ended up being incredibly long. If you look at those two collections, I wrote 2,000 times 6 so I wrote 12,000 words on them. That doesn't include all the ancillary little essays and so on and so forth. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: And that ignores the fact that what, they probably average about three, three and a half minutes each<br />PAUL FORD: Yeah, so that was the other thing. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: to listen to. <br />PAUL FORD: Managing time. And actually on that piece, I made sheets. I printed out sheets of paper, with the songs on them, so that I could write down the reviews as I was going through my day. I could always be listening to music. It was also I was very serious about I felt that I wouldn't have journalistic integrity if I didn't listen to the song all the way through. There were maybe one or two exceptions, where it was obvious that someone had cut and pasted a full minute or two of the song, to make it longer. So I skipped over them. I remember those very clearly. But, other than that, even if it was a 13minute drone pop with a saxophone on top of it, I felt I had to listen. So what it was, it was a great way to figure out, learn a tremendous amount about a tremendous number of different things and cultures and styles and where things were going. It was great to find good music. It was also just good to see how do my tastes work, and can I create something entertaining or interesting out of an archive that make it pop, make it a popular entertainment. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Do you have a favorite one? <br />PAUL FORD: Well, the one that I always like the best, the piece was in anthologized, which was very nice, and there was a reading. I went to the reading, and I was trying to puzzle it out, and I was like, quot; I'm going to read exactly one review,quot; so other people had gotten up and talked at great length and read reviews of albums, which does make for difficult reading. I got up, and I said, quot; This guitarist has too many feelings.quot; <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Yeah, I saw that one. <br />PAUL FORD: And that one seemed to summarize an awful lot about what can be difficult about listening to very earnest pop music, where the young people creating it are really, really trying hard to connect. Sometimes it could be absolutely beautiful, and sometimes it can be a little bit of a challenge. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: I was surprised by how sometimes you can get a feel for it. Just six words. You can actually give me a sense of whether I want to hear it. One of the reviews is, quot; Sounds just like the Dresden Dolls,quot; which, if you know the band, you know the song, quot; Heavy parts boring. Melodic parts pleasurable.quot; Again, it gives a sense. <br />PAUL FORD: That's the challenge. There's a wonderful thing, I trot this out over and over again, but there's an arts and crafts guy in Britain, in the later part of the 1800s in particular, named William Morris, who's very Wikipediable. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Morris? <br />PAUL FORD: Morris. Yeah. And he had a wonderful line in one of his books. He printed books. He created wallpaper. He was an artist. He was sort of a little bit of everything. He said that you can't have art without resistance in the materials, in that the boundaries and the limits of a medium are what force you to be creative within them. We talk about this a lot, like deadlines and structures and how you're going to create things. You need some boundaries. One of the things about the web is that it has no real boundaries. Not in any sensible sense. I could put ten gigs of anything up on the server and call that my work. It can be video. It can be text. It can be me just holding down the quot; jquot; key on my keyboard for two hours. <br />So creating structure and creating literally boxes, forms that we can work within I think is really useful over time. You start to see patterns and good ideas. So that's what that piece is actually very much about. Both of those music grieve pieces are about me going, quot; If I limit my ability to communicate to six words, I'll get two tradeoffs. One is, there'll be an efficiency that will allow me to work through a much broader part of our culture than I normally could work through as a writer and thinker. I'm going to have this set of boundaries that I can play with and work with so that I can do a lot.quot; <br />And second of all, there's this fundamental question of can I communicate in that short of a space? Can I actually get people to pay attention and do something that will entertain and amuse them, given that I really only have these very few words? And so that comes back on me: can I do my job. It's giving myself work and seeing how it goes. And then measuring the response, seeing how the traffic is, seeing what people make of it. An enormous number of people were disappointed because I was not kind to bands that they were fond of. Other people found them funny. And some people found it useful. So straddling that is a lot of fun, figuring out how that combination of code and structure and then also narrative is really, to me, an exciting place to mess around and see what you can learn. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Okay. Well, you gave a surprisingly capable defense of what I thought when I first read it. I thought, quot; God! Who would imagine doing this and thinking it would be useful.quot; But actually, it's a very interesting perspective, and I did end up finding it fairly useful, not that I listened to the--I'm a little old for a lot of that South by Southwest Indie style music. <br />PAUL FORD: I think I am too now. That's one thing that the project taught me. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Yeah, well, 1,300 songs later. We have about ten, twelve minutes left, and I'd like to turn to another topic, which is maybe a little more serious. You wrote a post called Learning to Fear the Semantic Web. <br />PAUL FORD: Sure. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: I guess I'd like to start by asking you what you mean by the semantic web. <br />PAUL FORD: It's actually a very specific term referring to a set of technologies based primarily around one called RBF, which, I haven't talked about this in a year, and it's Resource Description Framework, sorry. I'm very fond of the Semantic Web. What the Semantic Web does, it's very similar in concept with things likethis might be too specific for people, but Google Big Table and essentially instead of a tightly coupled relational model where you have a set of tables, you have instead a concept of pieces of information linked through URLs or URIs, indicators that are of the web. Thus, the idea with the Semantic Web is that it turns the entire web into a discoverable and explorable database so that in a Semantic Web, instead of having Amazon being the organization that controls much of the information about books, every publisher or writer might publish their own book information that would be spidered, and then anyone can search through and browse and spider and create their own Amazonian database. This, of course, doesn't consider fulfillment and things like that. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: So the idea here is that, by creating a set of, I guess, globally unique identifiers, I think is the term? <br />PAUL FORD: Yes. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: That I can just post my page and put the appropriate identifiers on it, and people will be able to connect to it and make it part of their more structured page that brings them a lot of similar work. <br />PAUL FORD: Exactly. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Okay. <br />PAUL FORD: Go ahead. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: I was going to ask, the title of your post again was Learning to Fear the Semantic Web. What's to fear? <br />PAUL FORD: It was a very specific context that that was written in, and that was that at the moment I wrote it, there was a lawsuit or, if not a lawsuit, there was a threatened lawsuit against George Mason University, who created a very interesting product called Zotero that sits on the bottom of your web browser, if your web browser is Firefox. It might be on new browsers now, but it's definitely a Firefox tool. It's a citation manager. It's a bibliography manager that has a great semantic layer, really does a lovely job parsing things out of web pages and keeping track of bibliographies and notes and pages and so on and so forth. I'm going to bring up the piece because I want to get the words right, but basically what happened is that Thomson Reuters owns a piece of software called Endnote, and, if I rememberI'm going to be a little paranoid because I don't like to talk about the piece I remember as being accurate. <br />So anyway Endnote, they were upset with Zotero for basically kind of reverse engineering Endnote and using the format. What happened to me then as I watched that happen, and Reuters at that point had a service called OpenCalais that allowed people to upload texts and then get semantic information, basically those unique identifiers that you described, that would connect to topics. That service allowed people to basically take any piece of content and add a semantic web layer to it, and that again was done by Reuters. My reaction to that was, I was always very interested in OpenCalais, but at the time I couldn't get clear licensing information about what Reuters owned and didn't when I put my content in. <br />And then when I watched them sue Zotero, it just struck me that this is a very interesting era because this publishing company could suddenly make a claim over my use of their unique identifiers. They could say that I didn't really have the right or that I didn't have a clear licensing story with them, with the content, that I had added links to their stuff. So it's a very, very weird point to make, and the thing is, and I make this clear in the pieceI remember doing thisthis is not what Reuters was trying to communicate. It was the opposite. <br />They were trying to be as open and connected as possible, but because they are a giant company and because we live in litigious times, when I see them suing one Open Source project, when I see them claiming that this project doesn't really have rights over a data format, and they're also trying to have the open format, and this is, again, I don't know exactly what's happened since then. I'm assuming things have changed. But, at the moment, it was this thing where I was like, well, if you're going to have this Semantic Web, but it's possible to have people getting sued for how they use data, and you have this provider creating your uri’s, you really do run a risk. <br />There's a weird, so unexplored, confusing risk that, when someone can define what reality's going to be in terms of how people using traffic and URLs and data, it means they can change their mind or that they can start to sue other people about that. So that strikes me as just something to be aware of as we are exchanging concepts. And, look, here in this World that we're in right now, there's been all sorts of stuff about digital goods and who has the rights to what and copyright and so on and so forth. It's a tricky, tricky, tricky territory. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: I was surprised in that blog, when you wrote about how much you actually worry about getting sued as a writer. <br />PAUL FORD: That's an editor's job too. Especially working as a magazine editor, I would say my numberone job was don't get sued for a dumb reason. Don't get sued because the facts that you put out were wrong, or you didn't properly edit something, or you put words in someone's mouth, that weren't there. You just can't do that. And you open yourself up to deserved litigation at that point, but there's also ways that you can be careful and strategic about how you communicate and how you edit pieces so that you aren't as exposed to a lawsuit while you're still making sure that the facts are coming across. And I feel that that's just something, you know, it's an incredibly litigious environment. People, as a default, threaten to sue each other now. Reuters don't have a ton of money for lawsuits. They don't have a ton of money for lawyers. <br />Actually that's one thing, in terms of thinking about starting up a new publication, one of my numberone concerns would be if it was to be communitybased, you'd present a pretty large target. So register for DMCA so that you can receive takedown notices, and then figure out a longterm legal liability insurance strategy. I think that those are actually key parts of trying to be a serious publication and trying to have a broader footprint. I think it's inevitable that someone will sue you. They will disagree with something you say. Someone will use an image that the rights aren't clear on where it will post that in the community area. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Yeah. That's what I was going to say is that I think the real concern there is not that it'll be something you say or do, but a community member who you don't necessarily control, but you're the target. <br />PAUL FORD: Right. I think you need the flowchart. You need the strategy for when that comes down. My take is, you can't be too paranoid about that stuff because the legal industry is opportunistic. It's far more distributed. You can get money out of people by sending them an email and saying, quot; You need to give us this money, or you're going to be liable.quot; And very often, in some cases, you are. There's a real risk with publishing stuff online. I try to credit track providence of every media object very, very carefully. But, if you're a large organization or you have a large community, it's very difficult to do it. <br />Wikipedia does an admirable job. They are clear on the law. They're clear on what's allowed and what's not. They remove things that they aren't allowed to use. They don't try to make a political point out of it. They just try to do the right thing, as allowed by the law, and communicate as clearly as possible around that. But it took them a while to get there, and it's a hard problem to solve. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Interesting. We're almost out of time. I wanted to close with a question. Our producer, the Metanomics producer, Jennette Forager, went through and summarized her favorite parts of a bunch of the stuff that you've written, and she came across a relatively recent post called Parka. I want to point out and ask you about this one sentence, quot; I wonder if, when we look back at this month of iPad, if we'll think 'What an amazing moment to have lived through,' or if it will be like some guy with sideburns telling your dad about the reeltoreel player in his carpeted van.quot; And so just in closing, I hope you can take a minute and tell us which you think it is. How do you think people are going to look at our current fascination with today's devices in 20, 30 years? <br />PAUL FORD: I guess what I would say is, this is a wonderful moment. I think, as we know, they'll seem ridiculously primitive, like a ColecoVision or an Atari 2600 feels to us now. I'm sure. And yet they're also going to feel very evocative. If I look at the screen of an Amiga or Commodore 64, I have a tremendous emotional reaction when I see those things. And so I think that's what I'm trying to get at there. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Which is different from the emotional reaction when you think about your dad and the guy with sideburns? <br />PAUL FORD: Question. That's really up to the audience. If I'm the person telling you about that, I'm going to say, honestly, that, if I'm telling you about the Commodore 64, I'm more like the guy with sideburns telling you about the reeltoreel player. I think the point I'm making there is that we live in just this continuum of new technologies. I spent a ton of time looking at a historical performance and historical audio and looking at how patterns of vaudeville were hubs and spokes which were enabled purely by telegraph and by railroad technology. That's how you were able to have a first real performed mass medium like vaudeville, where acts could move around. You needed the network, very literally a hub and spoke, to make that work. <br />And so these patterns of assuming that the pop culture we have at the moment has this sort of permanent quality, and yet there's always this looming technological pressure that is going to change it out from under you. It's going to be both. It's going to be the set of memories of our first iPads and our first Tablets where we touch them, and we had this wonderful sense of interaction and connection. And it's also going to be embarrassment at how hokey the linen and shelf views looked, and how silly it was that they were always trying to emulate natural wood in the bookshelf. Go ahead. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: No, no. I'm just thinking of the many things that my parents owned and some of the things that my wife and I bought way back when we were young. It doesn't all fill me with pride. <br />PAUL FORD: Oh, of course. Of course. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: So I'm afraid we are out of time. Jennette mentions in the chat that, near the end of the article we're talking about, Parka, you talk about how happy you are to have your landline back in your apartment. I know you turned down a phone call in the middle of our conversation here so we'll let you get back to that. But thanks so much, Paul Ford, for joining us and giving us your fascinating insights into writing, the nature of art, legal considerations in the Semantic Web, and I'm really glad I consulted you. <br />PAUL FORD: I feel privileged to have been consulted and welcomed in this community. Thank you. And I do appreciate it. Thank you. <br />ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Thanks a lot. And, everyone else, we will have Michael Chorost next week, talking about his new book. We had him on a couple months or so ago, and he'll be talking about his new vision of a highly connected world. So thanks, everyone. See you next week. Bye bye. <br />Document: cor1095.doc<br />Transcribed by: http://www.hiredhand.com<br />

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