Anil Dash says the great challenge for new media involves balancing competing demands for accessibility and immediacy.
Question: What is next the hurdle that new media must face?
Anil Dash: That’s a good one. I think new media is at a crossroads where we are no longer about technology, we are about culture. That means we have to listen to those that create and lead culture.
That can be artists, that can be academics, that can be those in government, in politics and in the civic sector; but it is no longer the realm of those that know computer programming and those that know how to use the hardware the best. That moment is over, and technologists are going to be reluctant to let go of that.
Those of us who know technology get very full of ourselves and say, “Oh, that means I’m a wizard, I’m an expert.” They talk about technology like it’s magic, but our responsibility now is to building a culture that is supportive of people expressing themselves, that’s inclusive of those that don’t have access to latest technology, who don’t have the resources to spend a lot of time learning it. What we’re faced with now in the world of new media is making sure we are creating environments that everybody can participate in, and making sure that we’re encouraging a culture of inclusion.
Frankly, we haven’t been that good at it. If you go and look around the world of new media right now, they will tell you that everybody has a $500 Smartphone—and I can tell you that’s not everybody you know. Or they’ll tell you, “Oh, everybody knows how to use a web browser. Everybody has email.” And those things are barely even true. They’re common, certainly, and people that want to learn them have at least a way to learn them, but they don’t know the potential of them yet.
I think that the real innovations that are going to happen in new media are going to be about bringing cutting edge, really broad-centered tools, that we have the fanciest trick that you can do in Photoshop, the most advanced video editing tool, and bring it down to a level that anybody can do it and do it within their means, within their resources they have. Those are going to bring about the real revolutions. It is going to be access, not invention, and that is a huge cultural change for Silicon Valley and the whole tech world—to think instead of what’s new, what’s really, truly broadly available. People will unlock that. They’ll figure that secret out hopefully and hopefully soon. I can’t wait to see that happen.
Question: How can new media bring this accessibility to the developing World?
Anil Dash: I think there’s an enormous challenge in using today’s technologies to reach the developing world, to reach rural communities in the U.S. Part of it is it requires cultural change from those developing the technologies. We don’t realize the cultural assumptions we make. When we make what we think are features in software, we’re actually defining culture.
There is a million examples for this. One I always point to is, for many years, Facebook had “it’s complicated” as a relationship choice. How you can define your relationship with someone? In most of the rest of the world, certainly any Islamic country, the idea that you will define your relationship with somebody as “it’s complicated” would say a lot about you and that other person that maybe you wouldn’t want to say.
So, software is reflecting a social value that is certainly not universal; it’s not universal within our own culture—there’s a lot of people that would think it’s anathema to build into your application the idea that you might have random hook ups with other people as a form of relationship, and so when you make assumptions like that, you stop a technology from being useful in the developing world even before they’ve looked at what its utility is. Right from the beginning, you’ve said, “This is not for you. This is not your tool to use.” Those are the fundamental issues that have to be addressed, as are we assuming that these tools can be used appropriately.
Then, there is the legislatable issue, the fact that the phone is a primary interface for what we think of as the web or the internet here in the U.S., and for the rest of the world it’s happening on a hand set.
I think you have the issues of shared computers. One laptop per child, and things like that. I think it’s much more likely one internet kiosk per village, or one hour slot at an internet café per week. Those are the ways that technology gets used in the rest of the world, if it gets used at all.
Thinking about really rapid access for a few minutes a week, because it costs a lot of money to use internet cafés, radically changes what you want an application to be able to do, what you want technology to be able to do.
There is tremendous potential. I think there’s people that have stars in their eyes right now about, “I’m going to use Twitter to deliver crop reports to someone in the developing world and that’s going to improve their ability to go to market.” I think those things are great. I hope they happen, but before we can even think about those things, we have to think about truly respecting and understanding the cultures that are going to be using these technologies, and building for the assumptions and the social constraints that will be using these technologies within.
Question: What specific technologies are being developed to promote accessibility?
Anil Dash: I do think we’re at an inflection point about immediacy. The big triumph for me about blogging was the idea of permanence—what they call the permanent link; if you will look at the bottom of a lot of blogs it used to say permanent link, a permanent link for that information. The idea that I’m going to create information that will live on through time and get more valuable, hopefully, over time, is pretty important. Then, the next step is immediacy. Can I do things in real time?
Twitter has taught a lot of people about this. To a certain degree, Facebook has taught people about this. Or, going back 10 or 15 years ago, instant messaging took off and taught people about immediacy. I think it’s still been fairly constrained. It’s been hard to immediately publish to a large number of people and to immediately share contacts or content for a lot of people, and I think there’s been a challenge as to filtering.
If there’s a constant flow of real-time information, how do you not get overwhelmed? I look at CNN and there’s three different things crawling across the screen and two people on the screen yelling at each other and a logo up in the corner; this is what real time means. This is overwhelming.
That’s going to be a challenge—to solve the presentation of large amounts of information in real time, but the idea of immediately and easily being able to share with any number of people, that seems really exciting, that seems that it might be, if not the next big thing, then part of the next best thing.
Recorded on: July 17 2009.