Essays on Technology and Culture

More Than An Engine Of Convenience

Twitter founder Ev Williams gave a speech at the 2013 XOXO Conference where he described the Internet as “a giant machine designed to give people what they want.” He then went on to describe a formula to build an online business that is almost guaranteed to succeed: “Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time… Identify that desire and use modern technology to take out steps.”

Recasting the Internet as little more than an engine of convenience seems painfully reductionist. This is the same technology that’s democratized media, and put the world’s collective knowledge at our fingertips, right? Ev seems to be reducing the whole thing to something more akin to plumbing, a series of tubes [1] that gets stuff we want to us faster, or at least easier. I’m guilty of ordering things off Amazon I could find at a local store, because I didn’t feel like tracking it down and the need wasn’t urgent.

We’re a long way from the cyberpunk ethos of the early late 80s and early 90s and the sense that the Internet would remake civilization once everyone was hooked up. Now, we look at attempts to wire the rest of the world [2] with the cynical understanding that it really just means more eyeballs for Facebook and Google to serve ads to. Who cares of those eyeballs aren’t going to be able to afford any of the products the ads are trying to sell, or may go blind from disease. There’s no money in improving poor people’s lives. You can leave that to Bill Gates.

There’s a crassness to Ev’s interpretation of what the Internet is for. I don’t know if it’s deliberate crassness, but I can’t ignore it. It’s a crassness reflected in how Venture Capital firms select startup companies to fund. Profit, sustainability, and actual world-changing are second to sheer numbers of users. The VC firms can then make back their investment when the startup gets bought out by a larger company, or when they have a huge IPO. After that, they can wash their hands of the whole affair, and use the profit to start the process again. [3]

The system’s worked well for Ev. He’s made a fair amount of money by building stuff and selling it at the right time, and some what he’s made is immeasurably valuable to a lot of people. It’s why I’m not sure he’s deliberately crass when he describes his formula. The guy from a small town in Nebraska, who made two services that help people communicate and connect certainly doesn’t come off as crass in his talk. He comes off as earnest. I certainly don’t begrudge him his success, either.

What worries me is that this idea of convenience above all will convince more shallow, crass, wealth-obsessed people that they can get rich quick. It means creating more gimmick apps and services that get popular fast then get acquired, instead of creating something of real value for the long-term. Even if Ev is absolutely right, and the Internet is nothing more than a convenience engine, it doesn’t mean we can’t use it to help everyone improve their lives in measurable ways instead of just lining the pockets of a few. These aren’t even mutually exclusive ways of operating. You can make lots of money running a successful business that employs a lot of well-paid, hard-working people. It just takes longer, and don’t count on venture capital to help.