Weinberger, David

Author of Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web. He's also coauthor of The Cluetrain Manifesto.

David Weinberger is the publisher of JOHO (Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization, www.hyperorg.com). He is a commentator on National Public Radio's All Things Considered and a columnist for Darwin magazine. He has written for a wide variety of publications, including Wired, the New York Times, and Smithsonian, and he gives talks around the world on what the Web is doing to business.


Small Pieces Loosely Joined is a book to savor. Not to speed read. I am not a techie—but I ardently believe the Web will change everything. David has made me laugh ... and frown ... and pause and think ... and scribble furiously in the margins ... and call friends a continent away for long conversations. That's exactly the right mood for exploring the consequences of the most profound medium of social and political and economic change in hundreds of years.—Tom Peters

In the tradition of Marshall McLuhan, David Weinberger has offered a startlingly fresh look at a new medium. At its heart, Small Pieces is an elegant and ultimately hopeful inquiry into the human condition itself. Once you read this book, you'll see the Web—and yourself—in a whole new light.—Daniel H. Pink, author of Free Agent Nation

tompeters.com asks …

What does Small Pieces Loosely Joined mean?

DW: Seven years ago I was about to give a talk on “The Nature of the Document,” and I had a presentation all prepared. About 15 minutes before I went on, I had this idea, which came in the form of a picture, oddly, because I’m not a very pictorial guy. Rather than a cube, sort of like a Rubik’s Cube, the block of small cubes stuck together very tightly, everything was blowing apart because of the Web.

And at the moment, I was thinking about it, in document management, which was a very tightly controlled environment, and about how that was going to be blown apart. But it struck me that that was also true of the Web itself, and of everything that’s going on in the Web as well; that what were very tightly controlled, centralized structures have been ripped apart into many small pieces loosely joined.

I think that’s true of the architecture of the Internet and of the Web. But it’s also true of us on the Web, that we are, in fact, many small pieces loosely joined.

Why should we read your book?

DW: In one sense, the book is my attempt to figure out why there is so much excitement about what is essentially just another technology. It’s just a bunch of tin cans and string-servers and wires. Nevertheless, the excitement around the Web, for the past seven years or so, has been amazing. It’s become a dominant theme in our culture. Why has this happened? Why has this mere technology become so important?

And the book tries to figure that out by looking primarily not at the direct social changes that the Web will bring; what it’s going to do to government; or what it’s going to do to business; or the family; or religion, all of which are great topics, but not what the book, fundamentally, is about. I think the book tries to be a step underneath that, asking about the ideas that then give rise to changes in government, and religion, and family, and business.

I argue that the most important effect of the Web is on our ideas in the real world. We have a set of concepts that are bedrock to our self-understanding in the real world: who we are, what it means to be with other people, how to act, and what morality means and is. And even what time, space, and matter are.

The Web experience changes those concepts. We go back into the real world with altered senses of space, time, matter, morality, perfection, knowledge. And that’s a deeper effect, I think. And it gives rise to the effect on the social institutions that will be so important.

The words “delight” and “passion” show up a lot in this book. In fact, at the end of one of the chapters, I think you’re talking about space. And you finish with, “And that makes it easy to lose sight of the fact that what holds the Web together isn’t a carpet of rock, but the world’s passion.” On the one hand, in Tom Peters’ world, that’s a lot of what we’re all about, about bringing passion to work. And so, when I see that you’re talking about a place, a space, a thing that’s allowing for passion, that’s exciting. Can you just talk more about why that word is used so much in your book? Or why it’s important?

DW: In part, it’s important because we’ve gotten it so wrong in our thinking about ourselves, and our real world. We’ve gotten it terribly, terribly wrong. And this has been building up through a cultural history and a philosophical history. We’ve come to think of the real world primarily as realists. And we look at what’s real about the world, and we think it’s matter. It’s the stuff in the world. Of course it would be insane to deny that the real world consists of matter, and it’s pretty darn important to the nature of the real world.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that matter is an abstraction from our everyday experience of the real world. We don’t encounter matter; we encounter things that matter to us. We encounter people, and the objects around us that we use. And, our houses, like this one, with a kitchen table and dining room table, these are not matter, except in the very, very abstract sense. We’ve come to think that what’s most real about the real world is this abstract matter. That’s the background that leads me to emphasize passion so much.

You go out on the Web, and the Web is a completely voluntary world. We’re there because we want to be. We’re out there finding other people who care about the same things as we do. And maybe they care by totally disagreeing with us, and we get into a huge flame fest. But even that is only drawing us in because here’s somebody who cares about the same thing as we do.

The structure of the Web itself is one of hyperlinks. With no hyperlinks, there’s literally no Web. Hyperlinks are only put in because I, on my page, think that you might find interesting, care about, this other page that I found interesting. So the very architecture of the Web is based around humans caring about things, and pointing away from their own page to other pages that talk about the same thing.

That caring and interest I think are better described using the word “passion.” It’s a better word because I think it’s truer. I think it gets more to the heart, rather than the watered-down words like “community of interest.” Yeah, well that’s interesting. But, it’s not enough to explain the impact the Web is having.

But that community of interest is part of that businessification of language, for instance, that you—I wouldn’t exactly say rail against, but you point out that the business world takes something and makes it dull. Whereas the Web, in its unconstructed glory, does the opposite.

DW: Absolutely. Passion is a wild, unruly word, and that’s why it figures so prominently in the book. It’s to remind business that business’s attempt to talk about the Web in its own language is actually a form of denial. It makes them feel good. The Web consists of markets. Well, we know how to deal with markets. Markets are faceless. Markets can be manipulated. We are in control of markets. That’s more or less the definition of a market, by the way, from the business point of view. It’s a set of people who will respond to your messages, the people who you can control or influence. That’s comforting. But it’s also papering over the wildness of the Web.

Part of our interest here at tompeters.com, obviously, centers around some business management issues. From a management point of view, what are the lessons to be learned from what you’re telling us the Web is?

DW: I’m saying there are two. The first is that business had made itself synonymous with management. And in many instances, that’s appropriate. But what we’ve learned from the Internet and from the Web is that if you really, really want to scale a project, you cannot do it by managing it. Quite the opposite. You have to let go of the management of it. The only reason the Internet was able to scale the way that it has, to an unimaginable size, is precisely because it was constructed to allow itself to be extended without any centralized management.

Now if you’re building a Hoover Dam, you’re going to need centralized management. But if you want to build a business more on the order of the Web, that takes advantage of the Web’s ability to scale, then you have to look at this seeming paradox of giving up management in order to achieve a true scale.

The second lesson of the Web, I believe, is that it’s many small pieces loosely joined. Business’s view is that its centralized nodes are like forts that are able to manage and control the information they’re giving out to the little people in the market. Business has structured itself around controlling information as a way of controlling customers, competitors, and employees. And that’s just not going to work anymore.

For example, the best sources of information about products are not companies anymore. In almost every case, it’s the market. It’s the people who are using the stuff, and who care about it. Once again, that’s passion. People are talking with one another, and developing this huge body of distributed expertise. It’s frank. It’s not self-interested. It’s expressed in human voices. It’s readable. It’s not a bunch of market- and business-speak.

But that means that business’s traditional techniques of controlling markets, and competitors, and employees, just don’t work anymore. It means that the very definition of a business—which has been bound by those informational walls—doesn’t hold anymore. The very nature of business gets broken up into many small pieces loosely joined.

On an individual level, you say that people can be more like themselves on the Web than they can be in the real world. You can try on a different persona on the Web. You can be in a chat room with one name here. You can be in a different chat room with a different name—and personality—there. You can have one Web site that’s got one point of view. You can have another Web site with a totally different point of view. Is it that much different than the real world where I can go to work, and I can be one person at work, but then at night I can be Zorro, or whatever, running around the streets in my black cape. And on the weekend, I can be a weekend warrior.

You maintain there’s more capability in Web world to explore your different personae than there are in what we call the real world. Why?

DW: It is, it seems to me, certainly easier to adopt a persona on the Web than in the real world. Because you’re not bound by space. In the real world, we are located in one spot. And, because it’s hard to move around, we tend to live in one spot for years, and years, and years. We see the same people. And, we have a sense that we need to be relatively consistent with those people.

I may be a different person at work than I am at home, which is almost always the case, and only mildly psychotic. But when I go to work, I’m pretty consistently the same person in that environment. On the Web, because of the ability to interact quickly with people that you haven’t met before from around the world, perhaps, and because of the anonymity that’s available on the Web, it’s easier to adopt many personae.

There’s nothing on the Web that is radically different from how we are in the real world because we’re the same people. Nevertheless, there are some tendencies that get exaggerated for better or for worse on the Web. The ability to adopt many personae, to play at being this person or that, to lie, to con people, is much, much easier. It’s also, I think, more socially acceptable.

My friend Chris Locke is RageBoy on the Web, sometimes. He’s also Chris Locke on the Web. He’s not RageBoy in person. That would be psychotic. It’s not only perfectly acceptable on the Web, it’s actually quite enjoyable. So, it’s easier. I think the question is whether that experience on the Web is going to affect our real world type of self. And I don’t know the answer to that.

Early in the book, you relate the story of Michael Ian Campbell, who, after the killings at Columbine High School in Colorado, sent an email to some students there saying something to the effect that, “Well, the job wasn’t completed.” He was tracked down, and at his trial his defense was, “Well, I was trying on a different persona.” He, in fact, said he was trying on John Malkovich, his favorite actor.

This is something that you can do on the Web. At the end of that chapter, you say that here is an example of somebody abusing the new world. And yet, I wonder how relevant the word “abuse” is here since the Web seems to be all about creating new norms. So eventually, will that be considered abuse? Or is that just something that, in a way, is going to be part of the personality of the Web? The sinister component to it.

DW: Well, he made specific threats, “Don’t go to school tomorrow because the job’s not done,” to a high school girl who had already seen a whole bunch of her friends shot and killed. I’m going to count that as abuse. The abuse was not in his adopting John Malkovich’s personality. By itself, yeah, who cares? That is the norm on the Web. But when you’re terrorizing a teenager, I’m going to count that as abuse. There are still going to be norms of human behavior.

But, it’s important, I think, which is what you’re getting at, to locate where the abuse is. It’s not in his pretending to be somebody else, or adopting a personality. It’s actually, in this case, in the content of what he said.

Although a lot of people will misunderstand the locus of the abuse there. My concern is that being in this brave new world and all, any little thing that goes wrong, the human tendency is to try to delete the source of the problem. Right?

DW: Yeah.

And our politicians would have no students using email because of something like this. Does the unformed, the unmanaged construct save the Web from that kind of lawmaking?

DW: Well, there’s a political question, which is pretty depressing to contemplate. Larry Lessig [see his blog here], in his books, contemplates the future of ideas. He’s very pessimistic, which is too bad because he is really, really smart. He is very much in favor of having an open Internet. It is certainly the case that the political reaction to an environment that is out of control is to legislate it so that it’s under control. That hasn’t happened—yet. I’m surprised that it has been as sedate as it’s been. The U.S. Government has, for now, backed off of sales taxes, for example, on the Internet. And while they have passed some astoundingly stupid legislation, they have not passed some other even more astoundingly stupid legislation yet.

There are things that you get on an open Internet that make many of us extremely uncomfortable. And, I don’t see any way of removing those except by fundamentally altering the nature of the Internet, which would then kill the Internet. So these are things that you get, unfortunately, whether you like it or not.

Such as being bombarded by pornography.

DW: Your kids are going to get bombarded by pornography. Yes. They open up an AOL account and boom it happens. And the second thing obviously is spam. It’s a terrible problem. Seventy-five percent of my email is spam.

But, you have your delete button.

DW: Yes, I do.

So in a way—

DW: It’s just an annoyance.

That’s easier than having to tear up the envelopes that come to you physically, right? There’s less physical exertion.

DW: Absolutely. Fewer dead trees, too. Spam is an annoyance. The clever spammers do manage to make themselves more annoying by successfully hiding themselves. Getting you to open their email, and actually read a paragraph before you realize you’re being fooled. But, that’s just an annoyance.

The presence of pornography pushed into your mailbox is more than an annoyance to a lot of people. There’s nothing you can do about it, though, other than shut down the Internet.

And what have you done with the Web that you wouldn’t have done without it? What’s it done for you, personally, that’s cool, exciting?

DW: I order books online from Amazon. It’s amazing. They come within a few days. (Smiles.) It’s just incredible.

You’re being glib and a jerk, but it’s also true. It’s a great thing, getting books delivered to your doorstep.

DW: Yes. It’s a convenience.

But it also comes with a lot of information wrapped around it that I’m not going to get at my local award-winning bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

DW: Absolutely. Although you get different types of information at the Brookline Booksmith. There is much to be said for actually dealing with human beings, and being able to pull the books off the shelves and read the pages. Yes, absolutely. Amazon has, I think, done a great job of figuring out the balance between being a mass marketer and servicing individual voices, which are the ones that we want to hear; and then aggregating those individuals’ voices in their review section. I think they’ve been innovative and creative about that. But that’s not what I would point to, except in a glib and stupid way, regarding what the Web does for me.

I’m not sure how to put this. I find myself dealing with, interacting with, people from around the world on the basis of common interests, often quite focused, through email, primarily. And these people become some type of friend. I’m not even sure what to call them. Because friend is a word that works real well in the real world. I’m not quite sure what to call these people. But in some cases, I’ve known them for ten years. We’ve never met. And we exchange email once a year, once every two years. We have a little flurry, maybe three, or four, or five, or ten messages. And then it dies out. And then something else comes up, and we remember, and we go back to each other.

These are very high-value interchanges to me. They mean a lot. Sometimes they’re on technical matters. Or sometimes they’re jokes. Or sometimes it’s politics, or it’s family stuff. It’s, in a way, a very pure relationship. It’s on these topics. But I get a sense of who they are, and vice versa. I feel like I’m in a stream of people and topics that continues forever into the future, and extends back about ten years in time, into which I can always dip again. I don’t know what’s going to be presented out of this tomorrow. I don’t know what’s going to be in my inbox, who I’m going to hear from, who I have already talked with, or who is new.

It is a social world that is literally unlike anything we’ve ever had before. I mean, we don’t even have the vocabulary for talking about it yet. But I think it’s hugely important.

You have a whole chapter about perfection, what it means in Web world. Can you talk about humans and perfection and imperfection? Why you even bother to have that as a chapter in this book about the Web?

DW: I ended up writing about perfection in large part as a reaction against business’s view of itself. The chapter actually begins by talking about business’s anal-perfectionism. And the Web, I think, has a lot to say about why that type of perfectionism not only is impossible, but is usually inhibiting.

The background for this is business’s insistence on only presenting itself as perfect. Because it used to be able to control its image, control the information that it releases to the market, it would only release information that made it look absolutely perfect. Every product description, every product discussion, every photo—perfect. And of course, as the market, we’ve learned to totally discount that. We don’t expect the product to arrive and be perfect, or even look perfect. So, it’s a transparent game.

On the other hand, the notion that the only thing that’s acceptable, that the norm is perfection, is damaging. It’s hard to live up to that. And the Web, I think, revels in its lack of perfection. The Web itself is hugely imperfect. That was one of the criteria for it to be able to expand. If you had to wait for it to be perfect and controlled, then you would build the old-style network, which is centrally administered. And you make sure that everything is exactly right; and every user is up and running; and every page has been approved, and gone through the process. That’s the old-style network. And that’s good for a few hundred people.

On the Web, very explicitly, imperfection is okay. In fact, the architecture is such that it allowed routing messages around imperfect routers. But, that’s part of the ethos now as well. It’s okay to send an email without running the spell check. It’s okay to send an email without holding back and doing a second draft of it. We don’t expect new drafts of email. It’s a much more direct communication. It’s okay to be a jerk, to express one side of yourself, and not try to get the balance right. It’s okay to flame occasionally.

Here’s why it’s okay. You can’t have a voice, a human voice, if you are insisting on it being perfect. Business sanitizes its voice, gets every marketing statement right. And so, it sounds like a committee. It sounds like a business. Out on the Web, we don’t want to do that. We’re going to talk as ourselves. And we’re not perfect. Therefore, the Web cherishes imperfection.

So it is like the conversation on the street where you run into somebody. You have a quick conversation. You stutter. You use improper words. So in that way, it is very much like that real world experience in its immediacy.

DW: Yes.

Or unedited-ness.

DW: I think that’s absolutely right. Although you’re given more leeway on the Web. When you run into a friend, you already have a vocabulary, a rhetoric. On the Web, you’re running into people you don’t know. And that’s both a problem and an advantage, the lack of a shared rhetoric, a set of expectations about what you say and how you say it.

You mentioned Blogs a couple of times in the book. Could you talk about what they are and why they’re important to you, and why you think they are symptomatic of what the Web is all about.

DW: Absolutely. Blogging is very, very young. And it’s had a rapid history since its development. The initial idea was that you would be a geek, and you would be out browsing. And so, you would list sites that you’ve been to that you think other geeks would like. It was a log. That’s where the name comes from. It’s a Web log. Blog. And that was great for geeks. It’s a way of filtering the Net for individuals. It’s a very useful thing to do. And many, many Blogs still do that. But it got taken over, in terms of numbers, when a couple of years ago Blogger.com, and some other sites made it really, really easy for anybody to create a daily journal. You go to the Web page, type in your stuff, and it shows up on your page.

So, it’s not like this great breakthrough technology. But it was a really good idea. And, as a result, you got hundreds of thousands, literally hundreds of thousands, of individuals who now can post a daily journal.

If you browse randomly through these 500,000 to a million Weblogs, most of them that you come across will be uninteresting to you. But, so what? Here’s a kid, or a grown up, who has a place where she or he can say what matters to her or him. And that will be of interest to a handful of friends, perhaps. It’s not that everybody on the Web is famous for 15 minutes. It’s that everybody on the Web is famous to 15 people. That’s great.

So you get to write in your voice. And you are now making public whatever it is that you’re interested in. In some cases, it may be, “I had Wheaties for breakfast.” In other cases, it may be, “I just got a new CD by so and so.” What’s happened since then, though, the third phase of evolution, I guess, in Weblogs, is very typical of the Web. In the third phase, groups start to form. It’s not a function of individuals. It’s a set of groups. And the groups in this case are people who are referring to Weblogs that are referencing other Weblogs.

Doc Searls is one of the most important forces in shaping Weblogs. It’s not something he’s trying to do, he just has. He invented the term, “Web logrolling.” So in many, many Webs, there will be a list of, “Here are the Weblogs that I like.” And these lists tend to be relatively self-referential. They turn into nodes. Doc is at the center of one of the important nodes. And his node tends to be professional writers, or people who write really well. And they’re not writing about themselves, “Here’s what I had for breakfast.” They’re writing columns, basically, everyday, frequently very short, sometimes longer, about the things that they’re interested in.

And this is a new type of journalism. This is hugely important, I think, for a couple of reasons. First is that it is a new type of journalism in which you get multiple views on a topic that matters to you. It’s unsystematic. It’s contradictory because people are arguing with one another, back and forth in their Blogs, and linking to one another.

The expertise ranges from, “Don’t know nothing, but have a strong opinion,” to “Know a lot, and thus don’t have a strong opinion.” Because it’s all over the lot, just like humans are. You get to jump into this Blog stream, and find the ones that you think have something worthwhile, and start to build. So in a sense, even though it’s a set of subjective opinions, it’s much more objective than standard journalism is, which takes one person who pretends to be speaking as an authority. Here we have multiple people presenting multiple points of view. It’s truly inter-subjective. That’s one reason it’s important.

Another reason that it’s important is precisely because of the voice that it gives to individuals whose authority is on the page. It’s not, “I’m an authority because I have stuff that’s off the page. I have a degree. I did this or that.” No. You only listen to these folks because of the quality of what they’re saying, and how they say it, and the fact that they’re entertaining.

Weblogs are showing up in business, and are becoming apparent, I think, to a bunch of people. It’s exactly where real knowledge management is going to happen, where the knowledge innovation occurs. This is where people share information. It gets knocked around. It gets corrected. It gets contradicted. This is where the living knowledge of the company is being expressed, uncontrolled, in the voice of individuals, just like the Web itself.

Thank you.


Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web
The Cluetrain Manifesto

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