Louis Rossetto vs. Dave Winer

Back at the dawn of time, Dave Winer and Louis Rossetto had a little debate about the future of Web publishing. It was 1994. Things got heated.

“The era of public access Internet has come to an end,” Louis proclaimed when he launched HotWired. Meanwhile, Dave was promising that the Web would make publishers disappear.

Louis explained to Dave that these fantasies of everybody having their own Web page resembled the short-lived CB radio craze. The real action was always on the radio, where professional disc jockeys spin records for an eager audience.

“Yes, the web is like radio and cb,” Dave replied. “But it is also like a front porch. I might put a few flower pots on the porch, a couple of chairs, a BBQ, a swing, decorations that say something about me, and perhaps invite other people in. Imagine if you could visit my front porch and find pointers to all my friends’ porches.”

Louis thought Dave’s point of view was pretty quaint. “Sort of like putting up the lights at Xmas?” he shot back. “Would probably have the legs of a local Xmas extravaganza too… Once the novelty of net surfing has worn off, once people have figured out what interactivity really means, consumers are going to want to connect regularly to those suppliers who do this medium well. And that likely won’t be Uncle Moe on his digital front porch.”

This struck Dave as a pretty depressing – even a little sinister. “I prefer to be an optimist,” he replied. “Why put so much effort into proving that this medium will be just like all those that came before it?”

OK – so while you are savoring the pleasurable feeling that comes from knowing that you inhabit a superior vantage point, a decade down the road – stop for a second and ask: who was right?

Louis’s HotWired failed. Today, there are millions of sites. Uncle Moe has a blog, for sure. And yet, much of the traffic flows through a few great channels, most of them owned by large enterprises and controlled by professional engineers, managers, and editors.

For Louis, the Web was a platform through which to address an audience, destroying the power of old elites and giving new leaders a chance to emerge. For Dave, it was an answer to the errors, distortions, and illusions of professional media, which would be replaced by more direct and more personal forms.

But something else happened. Sure, big media flourished, little media flourished, there were new ways of telling the truth and new ways of lying. And meanwhile the rise of the Web was simultaneous with the invention of reality TV, with the ubiquity of surveillance devices, with the phone call from a salesman who somehow knows not only your name, but also the amount of your mortgage and your credit card debt. The Web became just one facet of a totally public world, a feature of every person’s inescapable visibility. Your “front porch,” as Dave had it, is open to everybody, and Uncle Moe is a public character. These days, if you google somebody and nothing comes up, you wonder about them. Maybe the debate over the future of media was a sideshow that distracted us while the idea of private life disappeared. At least that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately, as I’ve been browsing lots of other blogs, starting to maintain this site, and examining my own sense of privacy.

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