October 02, 2003

The End of Open?

Clay Shirky has some unusually dark thoughts on the future of openness:

I also have the same pit in my stomach about email in 2003 that I did in 1997 about usenet. I loved usenet as well, too literally and too well ó in the early 90ís, I poured two years of my life into that sink. But by 1997, I could see that the twin pressures plaguing usenet ó volume and spam ó had no easy solution. Thatís how I feel now about email, and what makes it worse is that its starting to be how I feel about openess.

...

And the thing that makes me sickest is that I may already have lived to see the high water mark of openess in my lifetime. Emailís loss (and in some ways its already happened, so enormous is its current debasement) is both tragic in and of itself, and possibly a warning about the future.

Now I'm certainly not going to argue that he's definitely wrong, unfortunately there are very real risks to the future of open systems. But at the same time I think he's not giving openness enough credit. In essence he's saying that the problems of spammers, free riders and shear volume are going to outstrip our ability to counter these issues within open systems. Here are a few reasons I hope this isn't going to be true:

  • Not all open systems are automatically at risk to these threats. How do you spam my RSS feeds for example. Open systems can be coded to narrow the volume of information, not increase it.
  • As more and more systems fall to these vulnerabilities, more and more effort will be placed in creating solutions. Better spam filters for instance. Imagine a spam filter that ranks your incoming mail by where someone is in your social network. Friends obviously shoot right through to your inbox, as do people fully interwoven in your personal network (ie they are friends with 4 of your friends). Those on periphery of your network or not in it at all get additional scrutiny, perhaps they get crossed referenced with people that appear in your RSS feeds or to directories of company's reputations.
  • The proliferation of human filters. This is key, as the shear volume of information increases there is tremendous value placed in filtering and sorting information. This creates a valuable market niche that people are rushing to fill. DJs filter the massive amount of recorded music. Bloggers filter their niches, while services like the Lycos 50 filter popular culture. In many sense the internet functions like a city with information industry ala Jane Jacobs The Economy of Cities. Specialization begets more specialization, creating a rich meshwork economy.

Guess we'll be finding out soon. I'm certainly not writing off email yet, although I'll certainly admit its getting more and more of a chore and less and less of a pleasure. Ultimately I think we'll have something much better and I have hope it will be an open system.

Posted by Abe at October 2, 2003 10:36 PM

Comments

Other factor that helped the demise of Usenet is that it didn't really form transparent communities: although they existed, were most dark to the outsider; no problem there, but they were hidden throughout all the noise that populated the channels.
The other thing is that the blog means an investment, either money or time. You can rant all you want, but to engage readers and similar readers requires knowledge and a compelling narrative technique of sorts.

The same with email: there are tools to restrict the provenance of our email.

Usenet was interesting because it was a completely unregulated, open space, where it didn't matter volume or spam. Other channels are not as forgiving, and as you say technology is already limiting the demise of email.

Think open collaborative spaces.

But maybe some of the solutions that you're proposing aren't really open. If I'm only accessable via RSS feeds I subscribed to and to people in my social network, if I'm basically operating a glorified white-list, this proves Shirky's point.

But maybe some of the solutions that you're proposing aren't really open. If I'm only accessable via RSS feeds I subscribed to and to people in my social network, if I'm basically operating a glorified white-list, this proves Shirky's point.

But maybe some of the solutions that you're proposing aren't really open. If I'm only accessable via RSS feeds I subscribed to and to people in my social network, if I'm basically operating a glorified white-list, this proves Shirky's point.

But think your solutions just illustrate Shirky's point. Technical fixes to spam will fall into two categories ... filtering and whitelists. Spammers have demonstrated that they're wise to filtering, by filling apm with random characters and arbitrary lines from novels, they can confuse any Baysian learning algorithm.

That leaves us with whitelists. (And subscription to RSS feeds or trusted correspondants etc.) But if we move to whitelists that *is* just is an example of us retreating from open to closed.

And this is my homepage.

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