To the Saïd Business School last night, to catch the evening panel discussion of this year's Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford, the fourth in the Saïd's annual series. These events bring together entrepreneurs, VCs and others involved in Silicon Valley, and this year the theme was 'Networks in the 21st Century'. Line-up: Allen Morgan (Keynote; MD, Mayfield), Charlie Leadbeater (Chair), Reid Hoffman (CEO and Founder, LinkedIn; on the Board of SixApart, investor in Last.fm), Craig Newmark (Chairman and Founder, Craigslist), Christopher Sacca (Principal, New Business Development, Google), Maria Sendra (Partner, Baker & McKenzie), Evan Williams (Co-creator of Blogger and Co-founder and CEO of Odeo), Robert Young (Co-founder and formerly CEO & Chairman of Red Hat; Founder and CEO Lulu).
Inspiring evening, not least because of Charlie Leadbeater's (CL) clever, skillful chairing and incisive remarks. Some rough notes follow.
CL began by rehearsing the history of Wikipedia: in just 4½ years it has established a web presence whose daily net traffic now exceeds that of the NYT, yet it has just one employee, hired in January of this year. This will be familiar to many, but the impact on the audience of businessmen last night struck me — "Hey! A new business model!". The leveraging of the power of the many, of the enthusiastic, in a shared enterprise with a marked social and intellectual idealism. (Allen Morgan had already mentioned, amongst others, del.icio.us and Flickr; Reid Hoffman praised Last.fm.)
The 1½ hours of panel discussion sustained a very high level of enthusiasm for what is happening through collaborative activities on the web (of which Wikipedia is an extraordinary example, of course). Craig Newmark wasn't less idealistic for expressing himself in homelier ways: social networking is 'just getting people together to improve their lives'; coffee houses are often the new (old! — Ben Hammersley's talk at Reboot 7) centres for such collaboration. Bob Young didn't see collaborative, social networking as a new phase in the history of capitalism: it's something that has always been present but obscured historically by an emphasis on private property rights. CL: surely Open Source is something new, the emergence of a new kind of collaboratively driven culture of innovation?
Chris Sacca: Google operates with no business plan but with ideals — ideals are resilient, much less likely to lead to rigidity than plans and likelier to resist going out of date; go to Wikipedia and look at the number of inspiring Open Source-derived Manifestos. Evan Williams spoke warmly of the social idealism that the democratisation of networks, media (etc) is bringing about.
From the audience: Mike Butcher asked if more value isn't being destroyed than created through disintermediation. (He also points out the really surprising lack of WiFi at the Saïd — something John Naughton mocked back in September:
When I arrived, I asked the pleasant young woman at the desk how to log onto the wireless network. She gave me a nice-but-puzzled look. Her voice said that there wasn’t such a thing; her look said “This is a business school, dumbo, not some technology college”. So I launched MacStumbler and — Lo! — it was So! The University of Oxford’s Business School doesn’t have a single wireless network.)
Chris Sacca (to no-one's surprise): Google is enabling many more new markets than it's "helping" to close. Long Tail and all that. Others on the panel spoke up for this.
CL's message was loud and clear — the times are changing. Examples and predictions: BT now has 20,000 engineers who are self-scheduling as they are better at organising their own time than is any centralised service; after the first London July bombing of this year, within 24 hours the BBC had received 20,000 emails with news, 360 still photos and 4 pieces of video (I think I caught these stats correctly); education will change fundamentally in this kind of new world.
CL: what's happening on and through the web doesn't match the standard models. It's not pyramidal, it's not valley chain … A 'bird's nest' is the best image/model for something like Wikipedia.
And, in a reference to the idea a number of the panel had supported, that online social networking is "just" there to assist in and feed back into offline social networking, CL made it clear that he thinks some things are now happening online that simply could not happen before: for example, what's achievable through ease of online scaling. (I would add: and what happens when digital and real worlds converge and become one?)
Footnote: as the panel session closed, I realised what question I'd have liked to have asked. It's what Anil Dash raised recently and Caterina Fake and others have taken up (Matthew Gertner, Thomas Hawk, Jason, Robert, Mike; BusinessWeek): if the end-users are doing the leveraging, and adding much/most of the value, will there come a point where it's perceived that the most interesting/committed/best contributing end-users should get paid for what they're doing? Or is love enough? My take: I hope the idealism continues, along with the normal stuff of human social life which requires no monetary incentive — or shouldn't do. The attention (keyword!) that good photos on Flickr (etc) receive should be "payment" enough.