[Episode 1] The birthday party challenge

Say you want to organize a birthday party with all your classmates. Say you’re looking for the day that best suits your 200 guests – say you’re very popular. Say you want to estimate in advance the number of participants. And say your birthday is in one week.

By the time you’ve read this, you probably think I’m an idiot because creating an event on Facebook allows you to do just that – silly me. Nevertheless, as a 22-year-old user of Facebook, I do remember how complicated it has been to invite my 30+ classmates to my 8th anniversary. My parents had to call each of their parents, weeks in advance, confirm their availability, coordinate what they had to bring, the time and the adress – they’d rather have created an event on Facebook.

“The centrality of group efforts in human life means that anything that changes the way group functions will have profound ramifications for everything from commerce and government to media and religion”, as Clay Shirky puts it elegantly in his 2008 book, Here Comes Everybody, The Power of Organizing Without Organization. It will even have ramifications on your birthday party.

In 20 years, we’ve conceived the Internet, built the associated infrastructure, invented personal computers, laptops, mobile phones, smartphones (and now smartwatches ), created Gmail (launched as an April’s Fool 10 years ago as Time recalls in this brilliant piece), Facebook, LinkedIn and Wikipedia.

Much in the way that the proverbial rising tide lifts all boats, the Internet has conquered our daily lives, for better or for worse. In fact, one month from now for my birthday, I won’t use mail, a desktop computer, my phone, MSN, an email, or even a Facebook event to invite everyone. Instead, I might just use an app (such as WePopp) or a Whatsapp conversation, or even post a message on a Facebook group.

The point here is not so much to show that Internet improved my life (I’m confident it did), but rather to underline the radical changes of this past decade. Let’s try to capture some of the major disruptions amongst them, and start raising the issues we’ll continue to adress in this blog.

One of the greatest technological shifts, after the Internet itself (need a crash course in Internet history ? read this piece by Vanity Fair or this article on the early works of Tim Berners-Lee by Time), is the transition from the Web 1.0 to the Web 2.0, essentially captured, according to O’Reilly, in 7 criteria.

Shift of value from softwares to their use. With all its great software innovations, how much would Facebook be worth without users ? More to the point, is there a difference between a customer and a user ?

Importance of owning a contributions-enabled database. According to O’Reilly, this is partly why Google Maps eventually defeated older map services as MapQuest. But who owns the user data and what can companies do with it ?

“Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” as Raymond dubs it, Linus’s Law, in his proverbial piece The Cathedral and the Bazaar, describing the production of Open Source Software. But how are copyright issues and intellectual property adressed in the digital world ?

100,000 people working 10 seconds is better than 10 people working 100,000 seconds, because it takes less time and because you have access to more intelligence – this is best developped in the Wikipedia chapter of Shirky’s book. But on what incentives is the Open Source community built ? What is at stake in the clash between proprietary and Open Source softwares ?

User-to-user assistance to attend “meganiches”, which Shirky defines as “niches in their appeal to a very particular audience, but with a number of participants previously available only to mainstream media”. But is the theory of Anderson, the Long Tail, applicable to all online materials ?

Interoperability, a word defined by Gasser and Palfrey in the following way : “Just as it is important that systems work together at these technical levels, it is often equally important that human beings and even institutions engage effectively”. Would governments or international organizations have the authority to enforce interoperability to prevent the phenomenon of user lock-in ? Who else could ?

Nimble architecture and business model to be able to adapt to your consumers behavior on-the-go. Should digital-based businesses be subject to the same amount of regulation as their analogical counterparts ?

If you care about users rights, common knowledge, online privacy, net neutrality, Internet governance, or only if you want to explore those issues, it’s exactly what I’ll do in this blog and in the following months – Stay Tuned !


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