Tech Life Was the idea great? Or was I?

The Bear Story

I’ve been spending a good part of the past six months considering a move back to the mountains. Right now, I’m heading into my sixth year in Suburbia and, well, I can’t complain. The Burbs are like fast food… everything you want… conveniently located… and at a sensible price.

Why screw with a good thing, Rands?

I grew up in the mountains. The Santa Cruz Mountains to be specific and that is my definition of living. For those of you not in the Bay Area, the Santa Cruz Mountains are an easy drive to all things Silicon Valley which means you can have your high power high tech gig and still drive home to the redwoods. Yeah, it’s a drive. Yeah, there are forest fires, earthquakes, and wackjob mountain folks. Some kooky shit goes down in the mountains, but it’s that precise lack of certainty that I enjoy… Living in the mountains is work. It’s a constant list of things to do combined with the occasional curveball. OH LOOK, LANDSLIDE.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The idea for this article popped in my head whilst reading the dialog betwen Kottke and Mena regarding observations on the evolution of the weblog community. Synopsis: Kottke notes that those who defined the blog-o-sphere are disappearing into a black-hole that is the company they’ve been successful in building. Mena responds by that she doesn’t like the idea that most companies are creatively stifling their employees and IN THE VERY NEXT PARAGRAPH says she can’t write about her favorite hot topic because “I’ll get pulled into a meeting about a upcoming business trip, will have to catch up on an email that builds up in my inbox”, etc. Hah.

I think the black-hole that Kottke describes as inevitable and it has to do with why I’m getting the hell out of Suburbia.

Story time. Consider the folks who took a chance and settled the western United States. Now realize I don’t have a smidge of credible data regarding these folks. I would likely be eaten by the first bear I encountered if I was stumbling around 1800s California, but stick with me for a moment.

What is the defining characteristic of these folks? They have a strong desire to change. It’s so strong that they’re willing to risk the bears and other challenges of frontier living.

Their first order of business is finding a piece of land where they’ll build their house. To be successful at this, a lot of things have to click. They’ve got rapidly learn about their environment, they’ve must adapt to changing situations, and they have to build a solid house. All of this must be done whilst also figuring out how to not be eaten by a bear.

The ones who succeed make it through the winter. The ones who don’t move back East or they die. Cruel natural selection at work.

Congrats! You made it through a year. Your proven success will have an interesting side effect: more folks will show up. You’re so happy you didn’t die that first winter, you’re tripping over yourself happy to help these new settlers using your hard earned year of experience. Being the good neighbor that you are, you help with the actual building of the house. Repeat this scenario a dozen times and you’ve transformed your house into a small town, a community.

Next step. Somewhere along the way, someone who is really good at building houses starts grabbing new settlers and saying, “Why don’t you save your time and money and pay ME to build your house. See, I’ve made it through five winters and I’ve yet to be eaten by a bear and don’t you want to start working on that farm anyway?”

Great. You now have a trade in housebuilding. Right behind these guys are the ones who are going to suggest they are great at keeping the roads clean while killing all the bears and then WHAM you’ve got a primal police force. When these guys start getting surly, you’re going to need laws and that means politicians. This is starting to look a whole lot like a full blown society, isn’t it?

My silly bear story is exactly what is happening to the weblog-o-sphere. It’s slowly turning into the weblog-o-burbs where all the real work to settle down is gone. It’s a single point and click to create your space which means the new arrivals don’t have any skin in the game because they’re not worried about being eaten by a bear.

Meanwhile, a subset of initial settlers have successfully have commoditized their knowledge. The Bloggers, the Moveabletypes, god bless ’em, are bringing weblogs to the masses and they’re hopefully making money while their doing it. It’s hard to argue with success. Right behind this success are a new breed of settlers who will attempt to put policy and laws around weblogs. It’s going on right now and there’s more coming.

So, what’s the problem? Any society evolves, right? Problem is, the weblog community has seen their hobby turn into business in a matter of years. Many of the early settlers, these folks who wanted something different, have seen their compatriots sucked into the lucrative opportunities that are created when lots of smart people who have a knack for not getting eaten by bears work together.

The job of business is to commoditize a great idea by sucking out all of it’s art. It sounds cruel and it is… but only for those who cherish the idea. Think Netscape here. A bunch of kids at University of Illinois… pouring their heart and soul into the great idea and WHAM they’re bazillionaires buying swank pads in Northern California. Meanwhile, the company that spawned the great idea is getting it’s teeth kicked in by Microsoft who did nothing original with the idea… Microsoft just used it’s size, influence, and velocity to convince the world its version of the idea was better. And it worked. And then the great idea was left to languish for years while the original true believers sat in their million dollar houses wondering “Was the idea great? Or was I?”

A great idea is great. Netscape, the company, is effectively dead and gone, but the idea is strong enough to continue. There’s still art there.

Here’s the good news about weblogs and you can quote me: business can’t kill weblogs. Ever.

It just might be that the defining characteristic of a weblog that is a ‘singular voice’, and the moment a business is able to replicate that voice, we’ve got a serious problem because that means art is dead.

Art won’t die.

Still, let’s stress unnecessarily for a moment. Let’s make a leap and say that some nimble business actually consumes weblogs, pleasantly rounding the square corners of every layout and sanitizing our collective voice by molding our creative foolishness into consumable mediocrity. Sounds grim. If I saw this, I know what I’d do. It’s what I always do when I find myself languishing. I’d pack my bags and head for the hills because any new frontier represents opportunity.

The folks who started Movabletype are the same folks who started Apple, Netscape, Ebay, and countless other great ideas that started between a handful people and turned into revolution. Here’s the secret. The majority of the early settlers in each of those companies are long gone not because they’re rich enough or successful enough. They’ve left because what they are good at is living on the frontier. One day they wake up and realize the business is bigger than the idea and they do what they always do…

They move further West… where there’s more bears.

4 Responses

  1. JohnO 19 years ago

    You should make a t-shirt Rands:

    Chase Bears

  2. j david 19 years ago

    You’ve just captured what I’ve been feeling about a number of things- professionally and personally. Look for the art (and it’s not at the mall!)

    Thanks Rands (and do let us know if you do the t-shirt thing).

  3. John Whitlock 19 years ago

    Hmmm – sounds a bit like Eric S. Raymond’s “Homesteading the Noosphere”:

    It must be a little scary to think you brain is duplicating some of ESR’s thoughts…

  4. Jeffrey J. Hoover 19 years ago

    On a more Real Life note, Come on up! I’m living in Bonny Doon and loving it.