Generation Open

I spent the weekend in DC at TransparencyCamp, an event modeled after BarCamp focused on government transparency and open access to sources of federal data (largely through APIs and web services). Down the street, a social-media savvy conference called PowerShift convened over 12,000 of the nation’s youth to march on Congress to have their concerns about the environment heard. They were largely brought together on social networks.

Last week, after an imbroglio about a change to their terms of service, Facebook published two plain-language documents setting the course for “governing Facebook in an Open and Transparent way“: a Statement of Rights and Responsibilities coupled with a list of ten guiding principles.

The week before last, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) released a set of recommendations for open government that, among other things, called for government data to be available in formats that promote reuse and are available via public APIs.

WTF is going on?

Clearly something has happened since I worked on the Spread Firefox project in 2004 — a time when Mozilla was an easily dismissed outpost for “modern communists” (since meritocracy and sharing equals Communism, apparently).

Seemingly, the culture of “open” has infused even the most conservative and blood-thirsty organizations with companies falling over each other to claim the mantle of being the most open of them all.

So we won, right?

I wouldn’t say that. In fact, I think it’s now when the hard work begins.

. . .

The people within Facebook not only believe in what they’re doing but are on the leading edge of Generation Open. It’s not merely an age thing; it’s a mindset thing. It’s about having all your references come from the land of the internet rather than TV and becoming accustomed to — and taking for granted — bilateral communications in place of unidirectional broadcast forms. Where authority figures used to be able to get away with telling you not to talk back, Generation Open just turns to Twitter and lets the whole world know what they think.

But it’s not just that the means of publishing have been democratized and the new medium is being mastered; change is flowing from the events that have shaped my generation’s understanding of economics, identity, and freedom.

Maybe it started with Pearl Jam (it did for me!). Or perhaps witnessing AOL incinerate Netscape, only to see a vast network emerge to champion the rise of Firefox from its ashes. Maybe being bombarded by stinking piles of Flash and Real Player one too many times lead to a realization that, “yeah, those advertisers ain’t so cool. They’re fuckin’ up my web!” Of course watching Google become a residue on the web itself, imbuing its colorful primaries on HTTP, as a lichen seduces a redwood, becoming inseparable from the host, also suggests a more organic approach to business as usual.

Talking to people who hack on Drupal or Mozilla, I’m not surprised when they presume openness as matter of course. They thrive on the work of those who have come before and in turn, pay it forward. Why wouldn’t their work be open?

Talking to people at Facebook (in light of the arc of their brief history) you might not expect openness to come culturally. Similarly, talking to Microsoft you could presume the same. In the latter case, you’d be right; in the former, I’m not so sure.

See, the people who populate Facebook are largely from Generation Open. They grew up in an era where open source wasn’t just a bygone conclusion, but it was central to how many of them learned to code. It wasn’t in computer science classes at top universities — those folks ended up at Arthur Anderson, Accenture or Oracle (and probably became equally boring). Instead, the hobbyist kids cut their teeth writing WordPress plugins, Firefox extensions, or Greasemonkey scripts. They found success because of openness.

ShareThat Zuckerberg et al talk about making the web a more “open and social place” where it’s easy to “share and connect” is no surprise: it’s the open, social nature of the web that has brought them such success, and will be the domain in which they achieve their magnum opus. They are the original progeny of the open web, and its natural heirs.

. . .

Obama is running smack against the legacy of the baby boomers — the generation whose parents defeated the Nazis. More relevant is that the boomers fought the Nazis. Their children, in turn, inherited a visceral fear of machinery, in large part thanks to IBM’s contributions to the near-extermination of an entire race of people. If you want to know why privacy is important — look to the power of aggregate knowledge in the hands of xenophobes 70 years ago.

But who was alive 70 years ago? Better: who was six years old and terribly impressionable fifty years ago? Our parents, that’s who.

And it’s no wonder why the Facebook newsfeed (now stream) and Twitter make these folks uneasy. The potential for abuse is so great and our generation — our open, open generation — is so beautifully naive.

. . .

We are the generation that will meet Al Qaeda not “head on”, but by the length of each of its tentacles. Unlike our parents’ enemies, ours are not centralized supernations anymore. Our enemies act like malware, infecting people’s brains, and thus behave like a decentralized zombie-bot horde that cannot be stopped unless you shift the environment or shut off the grid.

We are also the generation that watched our government fail to protect the victims of Katrina — before, during and after the event. The emperor’s safety net — sworn nemesis of fiscal conservatives — turned out not to exist despite all their persistent whining. Stranded, hundreds took to their roofs while helicopters hovered over head, broadcasting FEMA’s failure on the nightly news. While Old Media gawked, the open source community solved problems, delivering the Katrina PeopleFinder database, meticulously culled from public records and disparate resources that, at the time, lacked usable APIs.

But that wasn’t the first time “privacy” worked against us. On September 11, 2001 we flooded the cell networks, just wanting to know whether our friends and family were safe. The network, controlled by a few megacorporations, failed under the weight of our anxiety and calls; those supposed consumer protections designed to keep us safe… didn’t, turning technology and secrecy against us.

. . .

Back to this weekend in DC.

You put TransparencyCamp in context — and think about all the abuses that have been perpetrated by humans against humans — throughout time… you have to stop and wonder: “Geez, what on earth will make this generation any different than the ones that have come before? What’s to say that Zuckerberg — once he assembles a mass of personally identifying information on his peers on an order of magnitude never achieved since humans started counting time — won’t he do what everyone in his position has done before?”

Oddly enough, the answer is probably not. The reason is the web. Even weirder is that Facebook, as I write this, seems to be taking steps to embrace the web, seeking to become a part of it — rather than competing against it. It seems, at least in my interactions with folks at Facebook, that a good portion of them genuinely want to work with the web as it today, as they recognize the power that they themselves have derived from it. As they benefitted from it, they shall benefit it in turn.

Seems counterproductive to all those MBAs who study Microsoft as the masterstroke of the 21st century, but to the citizens of the web — we get it.

What Facebook is attempting — like the Obama administration in parallel — is nothing short of a revolution; you simply can’t evolve out of a culture of fear and paranoia that was passed down to us. You have to disrupt the ecosystem, and create a new equilibrium.

If we are Generation Open, then we are the optimistic generation. Ours only comes around every several generations with the resurgence of pure human spirit coupled with the resplendent realization of intent.

There are, however, still plenty who reject this attitude and approach, suffering from the combined malaise of “proprietariness”, “materialism”, and “consumerism”.

But — I shit you not — as the world turns, things are changing. Sharing and giving away all that you can are the best defenses against fear, obsolescence, growing old, and, even, wrinkles. It isn’t always easy, but it’s how we outlive the shackles of biology and transcend the physicality of gravity.

To transcend is to become transparent, clear, open.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: (YC W18), Uber, Google.

17 thoughts on “Generation Open”

  1. sort of got the feeling i was reading an historic document, sir: this might just be…

    you make giving it all away sound awfully sane; sharing, it’s own reward

    i hope you are right

  2. “Maybe it started with Pearl Jam.” LOL

    Ever hear of Richard Stallman?

    “Don’t trust any one over thirty.” 1960’s slogan.

    I do recall a wonderful conversation with my father now dead for thirty four years. “Death is a great thing son. It keeps the world from becoming the frozen pawn of old men.”

    I agree that openness and transparency are where it is at.

    But I knew that forty years ago. And I was not alone. You do not know how right you are when you say, “I think it’s now when the hard work begins.” The hard work never ends. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

    Good luck,


    “History does not

  3. Connect. Share. Be Open. Onward to the future my friend. It has been awesome working on a more open and social world with you over the last 5 years.

  4. Chris-

    This is a really powerful message, and I believe we’re on to something as we make the world more transparent, connected, and open. I echo Dave’s statements and look forward to working on this with you for the next 5 years and beyond.

  5. The people scared of revolution will scream, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The brilliance of it all? There is no one with any sort of absolute power. Even Facebook, with all it’s data and abilities, is at the mercy of it’s own users.

    I’m only 21, but the open information revolution is something I’ve desired for many years. The adage “Secrets don’t make friends” is perfectly correct. You can’t have a corrupt government if they can’t hide. You can’t have unethical corporations if their actions are transparent and watched.

    This is a brilliant article. Just reading it makes me feel energized and excited about the hard work ahead, excited to be part of a culture of change. Thank you.

  6. The next challenge is for parts of the world that are not yet so open to embrace the social web as a force for positive communication and change. Corrupt governments/leaders have every reason to fear this movement since it contradicts the dated control mechanisms they have in place.

    We’re lucky to be living in such an exciting time. Services such as Facebook & Twitter must continue to set the highest standards when it comes to openness without sacrificing privacy where so desired.

    I’m pleased with Facebook’s response to the recent controversial change of content ownership terms. Keep rocking!

  7. Sounds great, but *Facebook* ? It’s only been a few short years since everything Google did was a revolutionary insurrection against evil, now that they have a homestead to defend and a tighter grip on our day-to-day, they’re viewed with a bit more rightful suspicion. As others above have pointed out, the attitude you describe is the default stance of those with nothing to lose; “proprietariness” and “materialism” both result from investment in property, or the status quo. Jared’s right, FB’s power comes solely from its userbase, and it’s in their interest to keep that userbase fragmented and satisfied. Bob’s right too, this particular push/pull between the status quo and the new generation of the moment is the only given.

  8. what a bunch of crap. Zuck is a loser – wait until Facebook files for bankruptcy in 2009 – then see who owns your “data”

  9. A great pull together on the big picture of society evolution and the daily detail of openness implementation. They will be using this post in history classes someday.

  10. “What Facebook is attempting — like the Obama administration in parallel — is nothing short of a revolution; you simply can’t evolve out of a culture of fear and paranoia that was passed down to us. ”

    What *IS* Facebook attempting? Your thesis in this post isn’t clear.

    Yes, transparency is a good thing in government. Transparency with regards to the smelly kid next to you in class who you felt guilty not friending is not such a good thing.

    It seems like you’re lumping transparency of data / practices – like in the the realm of government – with transparency of thoughts / feelings / other personal items – id est, exhibitionism. While these two different tracts certainly dovetail at certain points, I would argue they are separate and distinctly different, and should be treated as such.

    I think you will always find people who are uncomfortable putting their lives on blast – and they’re made even more uncomfortable by the shifting mindset that you’re EXPECTED to put everything out in the open.

    I’m not saying this is a poisonous attitude that we’re moving towards, but temperance isn’t a bad check to have in this mad-dash rush to put everything on the web.

    I’m also confused as to what your anecdotes about Al-Qaeda, Katrina location services, and cell network outages has to do with this whole concept of transparency. Yes, with the decline of major super-powers our military has to readjust to guerrilla tactics – what does that have to do with your post? The power of individuals banding together, extra-governmentally, to get something done has been seen for centuries in this country, so what does the Katrina situation say to your post beyond “the internet reduces distance and collects information”? And since when has the control over a finite resource / service by a few powerful corporations NOT been railed against (or, alternatively, that the flaws in this model not been exposed)?

    I like where you were going with this post and I completely understand that it’s just a blog, not a journal article. I’d love to see a second version of this.

  11. As a mere 61 year-old bumbler on the net, I stumbled on this through my new (and delightful) Twitter account, which I joined as a result of being urged by a similarly aging Facebook friend. As BobLQ says, rebels and revolutionaries are rarely aware of those who have gone before along the same road 😉 Not all of us of the post war generation are paranoid, most of us are in awe at the achievements of the young, and delight in the doors you have opened, not just in our minds, but in our lives. If you do the right research (try Bob Dylan, Joan Baez) you will find we were fighting for the same openness and caring way back when.

    Altruism is a survival mechanism, not a virtue, if you don’t give you don’t get, and hoarding equals building your own prison – sadly, each generation seems to need to learn this lesson anew ;(

  12. No offense, but when i see articles like this, I realize how really super niave the world is about the internet.

  13. Hi Chris!

    I really don’t get the vanity URI vs realname debate here. I guess I don’t see a distinction. There is nothing that prevents people from using their “real name” in their vanity URI right?

    You can be lucky to have or use Certainly, FB has been ahead of the game with getting real names and identities, but is it really fair to throw MySpace under the bus for initiating the idea of an online identity to the common public?

    The irony is that you have changed your twitter URI and, while being excited about that, let’s not lose perspective.



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