TMN: How did Expert Labs come into being?
Anil Dash: Expert Labs has something of a complicated back story, but the most immediate antecedent was an effort called Peer to Patent, led by Beth Noveck. The idea was that a lot of people were frustrated with the backlog of software patents being filed, and how some were being handled, and what Beth did was help create a system where interested members of the public could contribute their expertise to help improve the feedback on filings. That ended up with faster processing, better info for the patent office, more satisfied entrepreneurs in the software industry, and better patents being granted.
Fast forward a few years from that, and Beth’s inspiration, a generous grant from the MacArthur Foundation in support of creating better policy, and incredible support from the American Association for the Advancement of Science all combined together into bringing Expert Labs into being. The mission now is that perhaps we can build technologies that will let policy makers use the expertise of the public at large to make better decisions.
TMN: What will Expert Labs provide that can’t already be facilitated via currently existing web resources?
AD: Right now existing web resources have a couple of shortcomings. At the highest level, the folks at a Facebook or Twitter or whatever see serving the needs of government as an afterthought, if it’s even being thought of at all. There’s also a big cultural gap between D.C. and Silicon Valley, which can mean a lot of cultural assumptions built into the tools and technologies used in either place can be a bit off. But mostly, nobody has tried to provide social web technologies for the purpose of solving government problems. Right now, it’s easy for a government agency or elected official to use the web to talk to peoplewe want to make it just as easy for them to listen to people.
TMN: What is your favorite object in your workspace?
AD: It’s kind of embarrassing, but it’s a top. It’s not particularly beautiful, and doesn’t have any meaning like a dreidel, but I got this perfectly-machined aluminum top as a gift, and as a result of having been so carefully built, it can spin for four or five minutes when you get it going. It’s also really heavy and feels quite substantial when you pick it up.
I am a little uncomfortable with the reality that something designed explicitly to be a useless executive desk toy is so compelling to me, but what can I say? I like shiny spinning things.
TMN: Having been in the business for a decade, do you find claims that blogging hurts traditional media are justified?
AD: I remember being at some old media vs. new media! event back in 2003 or so, as part of the now-annual tradition of observing this will be the year that really sees a battle between old media and new. And we were at Michael’s, home turf for the scions of old media. Somebody asked me that same question, and while I offered what I thought was a glib, funny answer, I think in retrospect maybe that truth was obvious seven or eight years ago: Blogging is only a danger to bad media. In truth, bad media hurts itself, regardless of how long the company publishing it has been around. I’ve seen great talents get laid off from the Washington Post, and they can look squarely at the folks who choose to have Sarah Palin opine on science if they want to see why part of their institution is failing. Now, at the same time, the fastest-growing part of their site is probably their blogs, so clearly it’s not about the age of the company, but about whether they’re being responsible and responsive to their audience.
Frankly, I got tired of having the discussion every six months for a decade, and of seeing lots of good, talented journalists sacrificed on the altar of their employers’ egos. While I still love media and journalism and even newspapers and magazines, my heart will always be with blogging, not just because it’s the medium that opened up every opportunity in my life, but because it’s a medium that is still trying to grow, thrive, and evolve. Nothing could have stopped the collapse of the old, broken media model, but we bloggers at least tried, and maybe the most fortunate of the old media companies will be the ones that at least try to accept the help.
TMN: What’s the best advice you’d give to your childhood self?
AD: Oh, man, that’s a good question. In a lot of ways, I had a great childhood, spent mostly playing on the computer and reading magazines and being awful at sportsthe same things I do today. Maybe I’d fuss try to fuss a little bit less, or tell my young self not to be such a spoiled brat and help out around the house more, but mostly I don’t have any advice for me as a kid because things were pretty good. I’d have some advice for my teenage self, but that’s mostly about not being such a sad bastard, and asking out a lot more girls.
TMN: In a recent blog post titled The Web in Danger, you raised concerns about proprietary online networks. What should people do to help maintain open networks and net neutrality?
AD: I think the most practical and pragmatic first step is for people to get educated. If I said, I’m going to come by your house, survey all of your personal data, rifle through your files, and share some parts of what I’ve learned with whomever pays me the most money, under terms that can change at any time to be even more in my favor, you’d kick me out without even thinking twice. If I said, But wait! If you let me do this, I’ll reintroduce you to people you hated in high school, and let you play with virtual farm animals! you’d probably be beating me while I was on the way out. But that’s the exchange we make with Facebook every day.
I’m not saying there’s no value in it, I’m saying there are 350 million people who don’t understand how much they’ve given up control over the most valuable part of their identities, and they’ve sold short their futures online without even getting paid.
Once you get educated, get your own web site and your own email with your own name on it, that you own. Someday very soon you’ll be able to be just as connected as you can be with Facebook and Twitter, but on your own terms, and that’s when we’ll see the real value of today’s real-time social networks. Right now we’re all constrained by the fact that we’re sharecroppers.
TMN: Who is your archnemesis?
AD: These days, I kind of don’t hate anybody anymore. I’ve spent a few years reaching out to people who exasperate or frustrate me, trying to figure out what similarity we have under the premise that we hate most in others that which we fail to see in ourselves. But there are people who are super talented and make me resentful, mostly writers. Every once in a while I see what Sasha Frere-Jones or Maura Johnston write about in regard to pop music, or what Choire Sicha and Alex Balk offer up on The Awl, and I think Dammit! I was gonna write that one! Can I count friends and acquaintances as archnemeses?
In a broader cultural sense, I really do fucking hate Lou Dobbs. I was seeing that pasty-faced, xenophobic sack of lies every time I was in an airport, because they always have the shittiest news shows on, and I’d taken to just shutting him off. Of course, everything I hate about Dobbs goes tenfold for Piyush (I won’t call him Bobby) Jindal. Nothing’s more pathetic than a self-hater. I suppose I shouldn’t let myself get trolled by these idiots, but if either of them ever tries to run for national office, I fear I’m gonna have to do a bus tour of my own, following them around the country and explaining how they’re trying to destroy our country.
You know, just my two cents.