Web 2.0 narcissism and geeking out in Northeastern Wisconsin

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m in Appleton, Wisconsin for the holidays and aside from chilling out after a really amazing year, I wanted to see what was going on around here from a tech perspective. Back when we were putting together Open Hack Day, I got an email from Bob Waldron (who lives in Appleton), who was putting together Barcamp Milwaukee (along with Justin Kruger) on the same weekend as Open Hack Day. I told Bob that I would get in touch if I was ever in Appleton, so I sent Bob an email earlier this week and he set up a local geek gathering in short order. After hooking up with Bob, I was looking forward to talking tech and meeting tech enthusiasts in a place I had never visited before. This is one of the reasons I love the Internet — pulling something like this together wouldn’t have been possible (or at least so easy) 15 years ago.

Northeastern Wisconsin geek gatheringAs Bob was setting up this gathering, I came across “Love American Style: Web 2.0 and Narcissism” by Philip Dawdy, a “fine rant” (as Nick Carr called it). It’s worth reading the whole thing, but the argument boils down to this:

this whole Web 2.0, social networking, virtual community business is essentially a pornography of the self—a projected, fictionalized self that is then worshipped by the slightly less-perfect self. Human existence has been this way to a degree once we became the leisure society (am I dabbling in Veblen here? I think so.), but with the Web 2.0 we are so much more willing to spread our selves and our self-infatuations around. If you don’t believe me, cruise through MySpace—a house of mirrors if there ever was one—where we are all rock stars, hotties, vampires and gangstas with flava.

I don’t think that Dawdy’s argument is entirely invalid. What he says about MySpace is difficult to argue with and the writing itself is entertaining, I just think it’s the “half empty” point-of-view of the social value of the web. When I can use the Internet to connect with interesting people in any city in the world (not just the U.S.) and meet them face-to-face for a pleasant afternoon of conversation about things we’re all passionate about, that’s a good thing, isn’t it? Meeting in person certainly takes a little more effort than commenting on someone’s blog or sending an email, but the Internet is ultimately the catalyst for building real relationships with people you might not have otherwise met (and this isn’t just “Web 2.0″ — it goes all the way back to USENET, the WELL, etc).

After getting beat up a little by the blogosphere, Dawdy comes back to clarify his position:

Most commenters missed my global point that the Web 2.0 is essentially creating a mirror world in which narcissists can play in a weird context-free universe and that Google itself also does a fine job of creating its own context-free universe while stripping much revenue away from the mainstream media without adding any real value to the equation.

This is still “half empty” as far as I’m concerned. All of these tools probably do amplify narcissistic tendencies that already exist in our culture, but they also amplify our ability to connect, and I for one am happy to accept the tradeoff for now.

If you’re interested in hooking up with tech folks in Northeastern Wisconsin, here are some things you should check out:

(Above photo, L-R: Drew Fleck, Bob Waldron, Todd Hanson, and Justin Kruger. Lisa Zeise joined us earlier, but I forgot to snap the photo before she left!)

Living it up in Wisconsin

I am currently visiting my soon-to-be in-laws in Appleton, Wisconsin, which happens to be the home and burial place of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the self-proclaimed birthplace of Harry Houdini (he was actually born in Hungary), and home of the first enclosed shopping mall in the United States. Appleton has roughly 75,000 residents and the pace reminds me of my hometown of Greenville, NC — not too small, but not big either. I’m just plain enjoying it. Mike Albo pretty much nailed how I’m feeling in the NY Times earlier this week (“Stultification: How Sweet It Is“):

Now I am 37 years old and I can’t wait to go insane at Christmas in that comfortable padded cell known as “home.” Instead of being tedious, going home has become an indulgent retreat from my fried-out issue-driven city life. It is a place where I line my mind and body with the fatty lard of my suburban youth and experience not one moment of regret.

I’ve been laying low, and I knew just how low I was laying when I asked one of my future brothers-in-law this question 10 minutes into a movie we were watching: was this straight-to-video?. Then I watched the whole thing. When the plotline is described on IMDB like this: “when a high school burnout discovers he’s been rejected from every college he’s applied to, he creates a fake university in order to fool his overzealous parents,” and the star of the movie is the guy who is the Mac in the “hi, I’m a Mac, hi, I’m a PC” commercials, my critical defenses are gone — sign me up and pass the cookies.

I love the Bay Area, but Wisconsin is a nice break from the day-to-day madness. The good people of Wisconsin are making my first visit here a really pleasant one.

On the subject of big city madness, be sure to check out Douglas Rushkoff’s account of his recent mugging at gunpoint in Brooklyn while on his front stoop taking out the garbage, and Barbara Rushkoff’s (his wife’s) reaction on her blog “A Girl Grows in Brooklyn,” a blog described as follows: “from preschool applications to park-bench gossip, nothing escapes the gimlet eye of this Park Slope magazine writer.” The blog started up earlier this month as a window into hip urban parenting and was duly noted by BoingBoing, but the mugging experience seems to have made Barbara question the whole idea of the urban parenting struggle: Yes, I’m upset, and yes, I may be overreacting. But man, I am too old and tired for this. We outta here. So what do you do when you’ve started a hip urban parenting blog and one of your first posts is about a seemingly firm decision to leave and give up the fight? Both posts are fascinating, and the comments are probably moreso.

James Brown: 1933-2006

On Saturday night, I was hanging out with some friends when we started talking about music legends we wanted to see while they were still alive. I talked about how Nancy and I saw Buck Owens play at his restaurant in Bakersfield less than a year before he died, and my companions said, “Have you seen James Brown? You gotta see James Brown.” James Brown had been on my must-see list for a while — at this moment, I can’t think of a more larger-than-life figure in the history of American music.

Well, I missed my chance to see him.

Several years ago, I used to spend time in Augusta, Georgia — James Brown’s hometown — and always loved how much the city embraced him despite his tawdry legal troubles. They still named a street after him (James Brown Boulevard) and eventually named the local civic center the James Brown Arena. I’m not sure if he was ever charged with any crimes in Georgia, but he was pardoned for his past crimes in South Carolina in 2003 and released a public statement:

God bless America on this beautiful day. I hope my pardon shows the youth that America is a beautiful country. I feel good!

James Brown helped make America a beautiful country. Rest in peace.

Five things you didn't know about me

Cody got me.

Here are five things you probably didn’t know about me, with some extended commentary for some of them:

1. My sophomore year of high-school (circa 1986-87), I formed a hip-hop (or “rap” as we called it) group and entered the high school talent show with some friends. We laid down some beats with a $25 Casio keyboard and rapped about the Brady Bunch. I think my stage name was “Chucky D.” I do remember that one of the other guys was called “McDLT” after the short-lived McDonald’s hamburger. Instead of a luxury car emblem around my neck (think Beastie Boys), I ripped the plastic AMC Pacer logo off my friend’s car and wore that.

Much to my surprise, we actually won the talent show against some heavy competition from “real” hip-hop groups, at least one metal band that went through the trouble of hauling an elaborate mail-ordered drummer’s cage (think Tommy Lee) onstage for their one song, and a few Whitney Houston wannabes. I don’t even remember what the prize was, or if we even stayed around to get it. As soon as we were crowned the winners, everyone was threatening to kick our asses: the hip-hop guys because we so completely violated the form, the metal guys because we brazenly mocked the heavy metal umlaut in our name (another story), and the Whitney Houston wannabes because, well, we sucked and they could actually sing.

I am not making this up. Sometimes I rationalize this whole thing as some kind of Dadaist experiment or performance art, that wearing the Pacer emblem around my neck and naming one of the guys after a McDonald’s hamburger was some kind of statement on consumerism, branding, and American absurdity — but I think it was actually just really all-around stupid.

2. My first job out of college was as a Pizza Hut delivery driver in Raleigh, NC — and it was one of the most interesting jobs I’ve ever had. I had actually graduated with honors from Duke, but had zero idea of what I wanted to do when I graduated. I figured that driving pizzas around all over town would give me some time to think about what to do next and listen to some good music at the same time. The plan worked. Before I left, I was given a “Pizza Hut Delivery Top Gun” pin to wear on my hat, and I still have it. I posted about the pizza delivery experience on USENET in alt.society.generation-x back in March 1994 and had visions — never realized — of writing a short story about some of my experiences (code name: “Hut of Darkness”). Back then, many people my age thought our generation was getting screwed and would never have things as good as our parents (oops! thank you, Internet Boom). One quote from my 21-year-old self makes me chuckle today and long for the time when politics were a little more entertaining and a little less dire:

Ross Perot’s comment on pizza delivery illustrates the relevance of the topic to this group (I paraphrase): “Why is it that everyone who delivers a pizza to my house has a college degree?”

Related story: while I was washing dishes one night, the guitarist from my favorite local band just happened to walk in (Lisa Cooper from Picasso Trigger) and we became fast friends (Lisa, are you out there?). At their height, Picasso Trigger opened for Sonic Youth in Chapel Hill on their Dirty tour (an album which featured a song named “Chapel Hill,” so this was ultra-cool). When I read this sentence in the Trouser Press review of their last album (Bipolar Cowboy, 1995), I have to crack a smile:

everybody’s feeding back, everybody sounds like they’re out of their minds with caffeine and hate, everybody’s barging ahead with the song whether the rest of the band is ready or not and nobody gives a shit.

3. In college, I had the best work-study job in the world: running the Duke Coffeehouse, the only student-run restaurant and music venue on campus. Most Duke students avoided the Coffeehouse and thought of it as a place for campus freaks and random locals to hang out — which is exactly why I liked it. A story last year described the Coffeehouse like this: “The Coffeehouse hosted the humble early days of local musicians who would go far, like Superchunk and Archers of Loaf, and traveling bands like Guided By Voices, Royal Trux and Beck.” I was there for that. In fact, I’m proud to say that my work running the place in 1992-93 made all of that possible. In 1992, the Duke administration was about to shut the place down when I stepped in and asked them to give me a few months to fix all of the problems. The prior managers had embezzled money into secret off-campus bank accounts and there was nothing but debt, angry creditors, and frustrated administrators for me to deal with, but I thought the Coffeehouse had so much unrealized potential. I implemented systems to take student meal plans (it was cash-only before) and profits went through the roof. That’s where I learned the old adage is true: sales fixes everything. All of the angry vendors were paid back in short order and I won the confidence of the administration. I leveraged that confidence to buy and install an awesome sound system and stage that Beck and the others played on (apparently, bootlegs of the Beck show are available, and Beck seemed to genuinely remember the place when I asked him about it at Yahoo! Open Hack Day). Anyway, I left a profit and no serious problems for the next manager and I’m still very proud of that.

4. I had quite a political career in high school and was class president my junior year and student body president my senior year. As student body president, I did all the morning announcements over the intercom, including the daily lunch menus. Chief among my accomplishments was a very successful fundraiser for the school library. Here’s how I did it: I convinced a local hog farmer to donate a pig, then went to the best BBQ restaurant in town to ask if they would cook and season the pig for the school so we could sell BBQ dinners before a football game. They agreed, and all we did was buy paper plates and plastic utensils. In the end, we couldn’t even fulfill the demand, and our margins were at least 98%. Success! (Note to my California friends: yes, it was what you would call “pulled pork,” but no one there ever calls it that — it’s barbeque.)

5. My first car was a rapidly-deteriorating 1980 Buick Regal (a bit about this car on USENET). I taped a photo of Willie Nelson to the dashboard and scrawled “American Hero” on it. I still feel that way about Willie.

It’s looking like this meme is getting a little played out, so I’m going to have to think a little about who I’m going to tag. . . look for an updated post soon.

OK, so I’m tagging Gordon, Cameron, Kaustubh, Ryan, and Greg.

Investing in people: microcredit and Kiva.org

Inspired in equal parts by Greg Cohn’s experience with Kiva.org and the awarding of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize to Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank for their work in micro-credit, I decided to make a couple of small loans to enterpreneurs in the developing world. For those who are not familiar with the concept of microcredit, Wikipedia offers this description:

Microcredit is the extension of very small loans (microloans) to the unemployed, to poor entrepreneurs and to others living in poverty who are not bankable. These individuals lack collateral, steady employment and a verifiable credit history and therefore cannot meet even the most minimum qualifications to gain access to traditional credit. Microcredit is a part of microfinance, which is the provision of financial services to the very poor; apart from loans, it includes savings, microinsurance and other financial innovations.

I made two small loans today using Kiva.org, which makes the process really simple:

  • One to a 43 year-old woman in Kenya to invest in her crafts business
  • One to a 42 year-old woman in Kenya to invest in her dairy business — mainly to buy two cows and feed.

For more about Kiva.org, read the FAQ. I’ll post later about how my loan portfolio is doing, though the repayment window is 10-18 months for the loans I extended, so it could be a while (one key note: these are no-interest loans, so it’s not a money-making opportunity). Kiva claims that their repayment rate to date is 100% and data from the United Nations Capital Development Fund say that the worldwide repayment rate for microloans is 97%. Even if you’re the cynical type, this seems like a good bet.

As the Nobel Prize press release says, “Lasting peace can not be achieved unless large population groups find ways in which to break out of poverty. Micro-credit is one such means. Development from below also serves to advance democracy and human rights.” This is definitely a compelling use of the Internet.

Update: my good friend Andrew Leonard offers his take on Kiva in his Salon blog, How the World Works: “Do it yourself microfinance.” I am routinely astonished by the world as it emerges before me, but wrapping my brain around do-it-yourself microfinance has been one of those moments where I feel the earth move under my feet.

Widgets are the ringtones for the MySpace generation

Today, I was thinking about widgets and marketplaces like the Wallop Modder Network that allow for the buying and selling of widgets. The over-30 curmudgeon in me wondered, “why would anyone ever buy and sell silly little widgets for their blogs?” Then I remembered the always-surprising (at least to me) ringtone market, and a lightbulb went off: widgets are the ringtones for the MySpace generation.

(Of course, it’s much easier to charge a ringtone to a phone and have that bill go to your parents, but what’s stopping anyone from offering pay-by-mobile-phone widget options?).

Predictive markets microconference at Yahoo!

My Yahoo! colleague Chris Plasser has put together a really impressive (and free) event at Yahoo! on Wednesday, December 13, the first installment of a new series called confab.yahoo. Here’s the description:

Join us for a public “how to” session on prediction markets** moderated by James Surowiecki, New Yorker columnist and best-selling author of The Wisdom of Crowds. Speakers from Google, HP, Microsoft, and Yahoo! will describe how they are using prediction markets to aid corporate forecasting and decision making. Other speakers include the developer of Zocalo, an open source prediction market platform; the co-founder of InklingMarkets.com, a Paul Graham yCombinator startup; and Robin Hanson, the visionary economist and inventor whose pioneering work paved the way. The event is open to the public and will emphasize practical lessons and hands-on advice. After brief presentations from each speaker, Surowiecki will open up the session for discussion with the audience.

Check out the Upcoming.org page for all the details.