Literal and some thoughts on online book clubs

Completing my master’s research and the birth of my daughter has provided me with a lot more time to read. Importantly, it’s also allowed me time to read purely for pleasure. This is not to say that reading academic papers isn’t pleasurable, but let’s not kid ourselves and pretend it’s the same as reading the latest David Grossman.

With the extra time on my hands I’ve also had time to check out Literal, a new-ish app that I found via Dense Discovery and could be clumsily described as an indie Goodreads. In fact, if you’ve been clamouring to break away from the Amazon owned visual mess that is Goodreads, feel free to make use of one of my invites. They even have an importer so you can transfer your library from one site to the other.

All the features you’d expected are there: book search, ratings, reviews, a personal library and a follow based social network. By following people you create a feed of updates that includes what they have added to their library. Just like Goodreads, its a great way to find new books and no doubt a recommendations algorithm based on your interactions is on the way too.

Literal Book Clubs

The team at Literal are putting a lot of energy into their new book club feature which they suggest will become central to the Literal experience over time. Right now, the feature is pretty basic. It includes a feed in which only the “owners” of the club can add books, but where all club members can add content related to those books – reviews, quotes, opinions etc. It’s essentially a closed version of the main feed.

Despite this relatively underdeveloped first release, news of the feature has been enough to get me excited about the possibilities well developed online book club. I’ve been a member of a few real world book clubs during my time, and while I’ve found them all stimulating, it’s often hard to find a group of people who share similar interests. 1 The web is good at solving this problem, so the question then becomes, what feature set would a great online book club have?

One book at a time

A key issue I have with the current implementation of Literal’s book club is that members can discuss any book added to the club at any time. This means that it’s pretty easy to see spoilers or get the thoughts of another member before you’ve had time to digest the book yourself. From my experience, book clubs tend to have one of two books that the group is actively reading and there is an embargo on conversation until some agreed date in the future. Members of the club could still create content about the books being read in their own time, but this wouldn’t be revealed to the rest of the group until after the embargo date.

Make an event of it

If you’ve spent even a small amount of time on Discord or Clubhouse you’ll have seen the potential for live audio rooms to facilitate online book clubs. Agree a time in the future for the club to get together and discuss the books being read. Create a stage which a few members of the club “host” and bring up other members of the group to share their thoughts. If it sounds like a lot like an IRL book club meet up, well that’s because it is. The live audio format works incredibly well in this regard. This concept dovetails nicely with the few books at a time model too. The meet up acts as the moment at which the book is no longer embargoed and all the content created by the group’s members can be viewed by others.

A club library, not a feed

I understand why Literal would make a feed core to the club but I think a shared library is more appropriate. A feed runs into the problems of spoilers discussed earlier, where as a shared library, in which a member chooses which book they’d like read the group’s opinions on, requires an active choice. It also supports the embargoed book feature, as that part of the library wouldn’t be accessible until after the meet up. I can see each book within the club’s library getting an awesome dedicated page in which you can access the audio from the meet up (for those who couldn’t attend live), see the breakdown of the group’s ratings, read reviews and interesting highlights.

A rough wireframe of a Literal Club with shared library

Clubs as a route to monetisation

There are a couple of obvious routes to monetising a network of global online book clubs. Affiliate networks will enable you to take a cut of books purchased via one of their links, and advertisers will be interested in targeting the audiences that form around different genres. Both, however, have the possibility to muddy the product as you inevitably start linking to Amazon (yawn) and including banners on the site (yuk).

I wonder if clubs offer an alternative route to monetisation. Clubs, at least in the way I’ve described them above, have a meaningful infrastructure cost and so it would be reasonable to make them a paid feature which scales as you join more. Paying users could also get access to exclusive events – I could imagine authors joining live audio rooms to promote their books – and also have all those annoying ads removed.

A seminar substitute?

One part of post-grad life I particularly enjoyed was a lively seminar discussion. They were so much more rewarding than during my under-grad when just getting people to read the core text was a challenge. At post-grad people cared about the subject matter and had opinions they wanted to share. A book club formed around a specific interest or genre has much of the same appeal, but with a much lower cost!

I am certain that my recent university experience is influencing my thinking here, but I believe that paying a small subscription fee to access the clubs feature would appeal to a group of people who want to share their interest in a subject matter on a deeper level. It’s not quite university, but it’s a form of continuous learning that might be a bigger niche than it first appears.

1. I should note that often one of the best things about a book club is reading outside of your comfort zone because you share the club with people of different interests.

Thoughts on six months of further eduction: Covid, distance learning and degree supply

A few months ago the taught portion of my master’s came to an end. This felt like a good moment to reflect on my experience as a student. What’s changed since I did my undergrad in 2003? How I was impacted back Covid? And what that might mean for students and universities in the future?


The lack of travel required by an entirely online course has been a huge advantage for me. For context, I look after my son one day a week giving me four days for the course. Most taught programmes at King’s consist of three modules per term (the final term is for research) and each of those modules is formed of a weekly one hour lecture and one hour seminar. The Strand campus is about 45 minutes from my house which means I’ve saved at least an hour and a half each day commuting – more when you factor in moving between rooms and chatting with other students and the teaching staff.


Reading is the area of academic life most different from when I did my undergraduate degree. Many academic journals were online back in 2003, but renting out books was slow and tiresome. You’d see students dashing for the library to get out one of the four copies of a core text, and then sit on them for an entire term. Today, most are available to rent digitally and for those that aren’t, you can usually purchase the e-book or resort to piracy. Getting to the library during Covid has been challenging for obvious reasons, but even in “normal times” the digitisation of reading material would have meant I was unlikely to visit that often. And, more to the point, it has made a core part of the academic experience significantly more accessible.


The format of lectures during my undergrad was pretty dull. A lecturer speaks for an hour and students furiously note-take hoping that they got everything down. There might have been a few questions, but they were limited due to time constraints. From my understanding master’s lectures are more participatory, but still suffer from time constraints and the rigidity of everyone being at a time and place to experience something that could be easily delivered in an asynchronous fashion.

Irrespective of Covid, pre-recorded lectures are big leap forward. I can chose to watch the content when I like; I can pause and rewind to ensure I have understood the points being made; I have enough time to make notes; and I can access automated transcripts to search through at a later date. I have also been prone to listening to much of a lecture at 1.5x speed. In fact, there are lecturers at King’s whose voices I only recognise at this pace!

In my experience lectures aren’t dynamic teaching environments. They are about the successful transfer of knowledge from lecturer to the student. A pre-recorded lecture is, in my opinion, a much better vehicle for this. And, should a student have a question about the content, there should be fora for them to do this – more on that later.


Seminars by comparison should be dynamic, collaborative, discursive and reflexive learning environments. They are the polar opposite of lectures. Here the quality of experience I’ve had has been sub-par. For me, video conferencing cannot replicate the experience of being in a room together debating an interesting topic. Technical hurdles remain: slow connections; delayed sounded; distorted video, etc. What’s more the technology affords people the opportunity to coast, or, for those lacking in confidence, the ability to just hide behind their avatar with the mic off.

New social norms will establish themselves. For example, I can foresee many universities mandating video be turned on with an optional background to protect a student’s privacy. Similarly, technology should make the audio visual experience better. But this will take time, and it’s likely be a case of good enough rather than as good or better. Personally, I am skeptical that we will ever create a learning environment as effective as a group of people sitting around together exchanging ideas.

Social life

I am not best placed to judge the quality of social opportunities while taking part in my master’s programme. While meeting new people is always nice, as a 36 year old with a young family it was much lower on my list of priorities. Judging by the comments from others on my course, and from the union emails I received, there was a valiant but ultimately failed attempt to create opportunities for students to meet.

The extent to which technology can fill this void will come down to one’s expectation. For those on my course looking for the “traditional” university experience I think the tools available today are laughable substitutes. However, for someone who has signed up for a distance learning experience, an online club centred around an interest may prove quite enjoyable.

“Distance Learning”

Considering the social aspect of university brings me the next topic quite nicely. Covid has blurred the boundary between distance and on-site learning. Take King’s by way of example. King’s advertises 11 online master’s course on their website and yet, right now, many of 256 taught on-site master’s programmes they offer are being facilitated online to some extent. Those that don’t require lab access (such as mine) are likely to be fully online.

There is a good chance I wouldn’t have enrolled in a master’s if I’d have been required to attend everything in person. I simply wouldn’t have had the time for the on-site programmes, and the range of distance learning courses to choose from is dramatically smaller.

It feels inevitable to me that universities will begin offering a wider range of programmes to distance learners. The past 18 months has proven that they can do it, so as long as British universities continue to over index relative to their size in global rankings, the financial motivation to do so will be there as well. 1

I can envisage a hybrid offering where all students access the same lecture content, i.e. pre-recorded with a student/teaching forum for Q&A. On-site learners get access to the campus facilities and attend seminars in person, while distance learners all attend video conferencing seminars and have different, if not zero, campus access rights.


One of the consistent gripes amongst my course mates is that we are paying the same prices for our course as someone who attended back in 2018/19. They got the full King’s experience, we are getting something far from that. I am happy to accept that this will regarded as a quirk of history, but, should universities adopt a hybrid model similar to the one I’ve outlined above some reduction in cost will need to follow.

Over supply…

All universities are elitist to some extent. They deliberately balance (although I am guessing it is more art than science) the supply of degrees in order to retain their status and the additional income that it generates. If technology enables massive lecture participation. If seminars no longer require physical space to attend. If reading has been digitised. Widening participation by increasing the number of distance learning programmes quickly follows. In other words, you can detach King’s the brand from King’s the physical space.

Maybe this is something universities could have always done. Maybe they have long hidden behind their physical campuses as a way of keeping people out. But now you’ve proven that some form of heightened accessibility is possible, the tough question to answer is: why would you be happy to return to the way things were?

1. The Institute of Fiscal Studies estimates that British universities are facing an of an income gap of £11B. £2.8B of that is attributed to a fall in international student enrolment brought on by the pandemic. A cursory look at a range of international university ranking systems shows British institutions are well placed.

Subscribing to Platformer and joining Sidechannel

I subscribed to Casey Newton’s Platformer last week. It was the first time I have paid for a so called “sovereign writer” since the trend took off last year. There were some fairly obvious motivations for this. First, the quality of Newton’s writing. He’s been covering the sector for quite some time now and that experience comes through. He’s probably a bit more tolerant of platform harms than I am, however, he’s not the acolyte that some would paint him as. He sees the problems they cause, but won’t be drawn into knee jerk reactions either. This later point also means that his access to the leaders in the industry is as good as it gets. They know he won’t fire “gotcha” style questions at them, and, whether it’s right or not, Zuckerberg et al. are under no obligation to talk to anyone. Just ask Parliament.

It was the launch of Sidechannel — a Discord community for paid subscribers — that pushed me into parting with my money, however.

For a long time now I’ve wanted an outlet for my interest in platforms and the impact digitisation has had on the wider economy. Reading about it myself could only take me so far. And while enrolling in a master’s at King’s has been an incredible experience, it will soon come to an end and I’ll lose the opportunity to share papers and debate with people who are interested in the same topic.

Sidechannel may not be quite as intense as the rhythm of research and seminar debates, but it’s in the same ball park. Everyone who is part of the Discord server is paying to be there, so the motivation to get value from it is real. Similarly, the total number of subscribers is in the thousands, not the tens or hundreds of thousands, so there is opportunity for meaningful discourse. What’s more the community an interesting mix of engineers, policy wonks, legal experts, designers and people who are just motivated to learn more about the platformification(?) of life. Conversation often centres around Newton’s writing, but it’s more than a comments thread as subscribers can start discussions too. And, of course, there are the live interviews.

I have been tempted to blog about the sovereign writers / indie journalists thing for a while. I think focussing the debate on Silicon Valley’s desire to undermine the institutions of journalism (however accurate that may be) fails to recognise some of the benefits the trend will bring to the wider journalism ecosystem.

I shall save that for another post, but in the mean time, I will leave you with the thought that the creation of niche audiences, anchored on the rigour of a lead journalist, adds something positive to the media landscape that didn’t exist before. If more journalists of note follow in Sidechannel’s footsteps I’m sure it will bring other readers to the table.

Generativity, uncertainty and digital entrepreneurship

This post has been submitted as part of an assessment for my master’s degree.

In 2006 The Harvard Law Review published Jonathan Zittrain’s seminal paper on The Generative Internet. In it Zittrain explains how technological generativity – put simply, technology’s capacity for unprompted change – has been a driving force behind many of the innovations we rely on today (Zittrain, 2006, p. 1980). Since its publication the concept of technological generativity has been discussed by a diverse field of scholars. However, it’s within the domain of digital entrepreneurship that it first caught my eye, no doubt a product of my own time as a digital entrepreneur.

One example comes from Nambisan’s 2017 paper paper that details how the generative nature of digital technology is one of the reasons digital entrepreneurship is uniquely affected by uncertainty. If networked technology is capable of unprompted change, it becomes harder for digital entrepreneur’s to control the trajectory of the products and services they create (Nambisan, 2017). This idea caught my attention as it’s widely known that tech startups are living through a moment of record investment (Tech Nation, 2021). And, if it’s common sense that greater uncertainty leads to a decline in the propensity for entrepreneurial action (McKelvie et al., 2011, p. 274), what then is enabling digital entrepreneurs to overcome apparent contradiction?

In this post I will argue that the generative forces contributing to this entrepreneurial uncertainty are also the forces that enable digital entrepreneurs to overcome it. In the first half I will briefly review the nature of uncertainty within entrepreneurship, before introducing the concept of generativity and explaining how it creates a uniquely uncertain environment for digital entrepreneurs. In the second half I will explain how generativity contributes to new affordances that motivates digital entrepreneurs and enables them to succeed.

The role of uncertainty within entrepreneurship

Uncertainty is the condition that arises as a result of the unknowable nature of the future (McMullen & Shepherd, 2006) and because action impacts the future, action is inherently uncertain (Mises, 1949 cited in McMullen & Shepherd, 2006, p. 133). The need for action and an uncertain future are at the heart of theories of entrepreneurship (Cunningham and Lischeron, 1991). Launching a new product requires action on the behalf of the entrepreneur (McKelvie et al., 2011). That same product will launch in an uncertain environment; and how it affects customers and how they respond to it is also uncertain (McMullen & Shepherd, 2006).

With all of this in mind it’s unsurprising that uncertainty is a regular feature in the discussions of entrepreneurship. Scholars have examined how uncertainty impacts the likelihood of entrepreneurial action (Herbert & Link, 1988); whether business planning can mitigate the inevitable uncertainty that exists when launching a venture (Brinckmann et al., 2010) and the extent to which uncertainty attracts certain people to the role (McKelvie et al., 2011). Zittrain himself alludes to this later point in an early article for the Harvard Business Review in which he claimed that:

The information technology explosion was set off by visionaries who thrive on uncertainty (Zittrain, 2005).

Uncertainty and digital entrepreneurship

This post is specifically concerned with the nature of uncertainty within digital entrepreneurship. With that in mind it’s worth briefly unpacking by what I mean by digital entrepreneurship before moving on.

In simple terms digital entrepreneurship is a sub-categorisation of entrepreneurship that differs from the traditional form in that a significant part of the business process has been digitised (Hull at al., 2007). However, a definition as wide as this would include companies who, for example, had digitised internal processes but not digitised any of their customer facing components. While there is no doubt that these companies should still be considered “digital” it’s important to clarify that for the purpose of this post I am concerned with ventures that produce digital products and services for use by their customers.

Digital entrepreneurship, in which digital ventures launch digital products and services, is a domain uniquely affected by uncertainty (Nambisan, 2017). At the root of this observation is the generative nature of the digital artefacts being created by digital entrepreneurs (Huang et al., 2017). Generativity means that they can evolve in an unpredictable fashion and outside of the control of their creator (Zittrain, 2006, p. 1980). Put another way, when a digital entrepreneur launches a new digital product, it’s underlying generativity will lead to change that the entrepreneur will not have been able to predict or control.

Nambisan (2017) synthesises these ideas and offers two observations about the nature of uncertainty within digital entrepreneurship. First, that the introduction of digital technology to the entrepreneurial process has made outcomes less bounded. This is driven by products that are “incomplete and in a state of flux”, themselves impacted by other digital artefacts and the capability of digital platform owners to infuse new generative potential into the products that make use of them (Nambisan, 2017, p. 1033). Second, that digital technology makes the role of the entrepreneur less predefined than traditional entrepreneurship, as it introduces a network of actors who have varying goals and motives and yet contribute to the same initiative (Nambisan, 2017).

It is evident that, when compared to the traditional image of an entrepreneur, the digital entrepreneur faces a significantly more uncertain future. And, if greater uncertainty leads to a decline in entrepreneurial action (McKelvie et al., 2011, p. 274), why is it that countries across the globe are seeing record levels of investment in tech startups (Tech Nation, 2021)?

Generative potential

For the remainder of this blog post I will argue that, as well as being a key contributor to entrepreneurial uncertainty, the generative nature of digital technology supports digital entrepreneurs in four important ways. However, before I introduce these observations, it’s worth returning to Zittrain’s paper briefly.

While Zittrain’s paper has informed to our understanding of uncertainty within digital entrepreneurship, the original intention of the paper was to point out the power of generative technology, a force that had contributed to the:

…rapid technological innovation to which we have become accustomed. (Zittrain, 2006, p. 1976).

And, how any attempt to centralise the Internet in the name of security and stability will dampen it’s generative potential (Zittrain, 2006, p. 2013).

This is significant for our discussion because, if we recognise generativity as an enabling force, we are closer to understanding how it can help digital entrepreneurs overcome the uncertainty it creates.

To expand on this point further I will use the rest of this post to argue that the generative nature of digital technology supports digital entrepreneurs in four ways:

  1. That digital products and infrastructure enable digital entrepreneurs to test and scale their concepts.

  2. That generative network effects help protect a digital entrepreneurs from competition.

  3. That digital networks create new sources of financing to support digital ventures.

  4. That generativity creates the outsized financial returns that motivates entrepreneurs to push ahead into the unknown.

Digital products and infrastructure enable rapid testing and scaling

Digital products are generative by virtue of their reprogrammable, recombinable and open properties (Nambisan, 2017, p. 1033). These features enable digital entrepreneurs to react quickly to the effects their products produce and the responses from customers (Nambisan, 2017). Huang et al. (2017 p. 302) highlight how the separation of function and form contribute to this process. With a digital product’s instructions (function) being independent from how the customer interacts with it (form), a digital entrepreneur is able to introduce new functionality without the need for a complete redesign of the product (Huang et al., 2017). Moreover, the nature of web-based applications in particular means that the digital entrepreneur can continuously release these new features with minimal effort required on the part of the customer (O’Reilly, 2005).

Digital infrastructure also plays a role in overcoming the uncertainty a generative digital ecosystem creates. Makerspaces and data analytics platforms, for example, enable digital entrepreneurs to find small audiences in order to test their products (Hatch, 2013, cited in Nambisan, 2017). By conducting a series of tests (as opposed to a traditional launch) they can search out product market fit before making use of those same platforms to scale rapidly (Ries, 2011). This same process is also supported by cloud computing, which allows for the horizontal scaling of the computing power necessary to support larger audiences (Nambisan, 2017, p. 1032).

Zittrain argues that generative technology has four features: capacity for leverage; adaptability; ease of mastery and accessibility (Zittrain, 2006, p. 1981). From my brief observations above we can see how digital products, platforms and infrastructure align with each of these features. They provide digital entrepreneurs with set of new set of tools that can be repurposed in a variety of ways; they are unique to the digital ecosystem; and they democratise the entrepreneurial process through their ease of use and widespread adoption (Aldrich, 2014). In short, the generative capacity of digital technology has created the uncertain environment digital entrepreneurs face, but also provided them with the tools to overcome it.

Network effects, disruption and moats

Many digital products benefit from the increasing returns to scale that are driven by network effects (Eisenmann et al., 2006). What’s more, these same network effects can build a defensive moat around the new business, one that can near on insurmountable for competitors (Schilling, 2002). As Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, explained in an email about mobile social networks to his Chief Financial Officer in 2012:

These businesses are nascent but the networks established, the brands are already meaningful, and if they grow to a large scale the [sic] could be very disruptive to us (Zuckerberg, M., 2012 [email] quoted in Newton, 2020).

This kind of network growth is a generative process – as users join a service their presence increases the likelihood that other users will join (Huang et al., 2017, p. 302). And while this is a process that digital entrepreneurs are not entirely in control of, it’s also one that they look to manage and influence through the strategies employed by their team (Huang et al., 2017).

Zuckerberg’s admission about network effects exemplifies the dual nature of generativity within the entrepreneurial process. It creates an uncertain, often disruptive, environmental force, while also acting as an enabler of rapid growth and competitive dominance.

Funding from the crowd

Despite the risk created by the generative power of digital technology there is no shortage of investment into digital ventures. Here in the UK, in the six years since 2015 there has been a 300% increase in investment into UK tech companies (Tech Nation, 2021).

As well as being able to access traditional forms of venture capital and angel investing to finance their startups, digital entrepreneurs are able to access crowdfunding, a new investment vehicle that is itself a product of the generative power of digital platforms (Nambisan, 2017 p. 1033).

Reward based crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo allow consumers to support nascent ventures with seed capital through the advanced purchasing of products (Mollick, 2014). Much like the digital infrastructure discussed in the earlier section, crowdfunding platforms enable digital entrepreneurs to test a market for their product (Mollick, 2014, p. 3) while also making their first customers part of a more collective entrepreneurial process (Nambisan, 2017, p. 1030). Similarly, equity based crowdfunding platforms like Crowdcube and Seedrs enable entrepreneurs to gain access to a new type of investor, one previously unable to invest in companies at such an early stage due to regulatory limits (Mollick, 2014, p. 3). Like reward based platforms, this process contributes capital to finance the future development of the venture, and presents a new route for entrepreneurs to secure funding. Investors in equity crowdfunding platforms have been shown to be motivated by the potential for financial returns, but also by some consumption utility that arises from the support of a given project (Agrawal et al., 2011 p 19).

Again we see how the generative features of leverage, accessibility and the ease of use of crowdfunding platforms is directly contributing to a venture’s chances of success. Critically, this provides entrepreneurs with another source of financing for their projects, but also the opportunity to test their ideas and observe market effects and responses, strategies which are vital to overcoming the otherwise uncertain nature of digital ecosystems.

A billion dollars

In The Social Network, the 2010 movie dramatisation of the creation Facebook, Sean Parker, Facebook’s first president, meets the two founders of the nascent social platform for lunch. The scene is best remembered for the quote about Facebook’s future revenue:

SEAN PARKER: A million dollars isn’t cool, you know what’s cool?

However, it’s the line before this that I find more interesting:

SEAN PARKER: You don't even know what the thing is yet. How big it can get, how far it can go. This is no time to take your chips down.

NB: You can watch the entire scene on YouTube.

It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which an entrepreneur would happily admit to not knowing what their company was with a would be investor/advisor. In the traditional view of entrepreneurship business plans and strategy are considered critical to the likely success of a venture and that means having a clear understanding of your product, market and the size of the opportunity (Brinckmann et al., 2010). And yet in this scene it is Parker, the more experienced digital entrepreneur of the group, who is most comfortable with this state of uncertainty.

This is unsurprising.

As the founder of Napster, a music sharing website that gained tens of millions of users within 12 months of launching, Parker had seen first hand the generative power of digital technology and the potential for it to yield significant financial returns (Kirkpatrick, 2010). Viewed in this light, “you don’t even know what this thing is yet” is a positive, not something to be ashamed of. In the words of Yoo (2013, p. 230) it has been, “designed without fully knowing the ‘whole’ design”.

Fast forward to 2021 and this idea is supported by the fact that, at the time of writing, Facebook is the sixth largest company by in the world by market capitalisation, and in total eight, of the ten largest companies, benefit from the same underlying generative forces (TradingView, 2021). Generativity may make the world of digital entrepreneurship uniquely uncertain, but it also contributes to the creation of huge financial returns.

Summing up

My aim for this post was to provide an explanation for a counter intuitive observation: that digital entrepreneurs are undeterred by the increased levels of uncertainty they face when starting a new venture. I’ve argued that there is a duality to Jonathan Zittrain’s theory of technological generativity that explains both where this uncertainty comes from, and how digital entrepreneurs are empowered to overcome it.

I should note that observing generativity’s duality is not a new idea. My argument was informed by the work Choi (2013) who when writing about anonymity noted that online abuse is both enabled and remedied by generative forces. Or, in more general terms, generativity’s “versatility is a double edged sword” (Choi, 2013, p. 505).

One of the challenges I have faced while researching for this post is finding many notable criticisms of Zittrain’s work. On one level this in itself is a criticism of his ideas, a good theory should hold against critique after all. But this too may be a byproduct of the theory’s simple elegance, as David Post notes in his review Zittrain’s 2008 book:

“Stating the obvious”—articulating a proposition in such a way that (pretty much) everyone involved in the discussion agrees that obvious—moves discussion and debate forward in constructive ways (Post, 2010, p. 104).

I wouldn’t expect this blog post to be met with such high praise, however, I too hope that the strength of my argument lies in the relative simplicity of what I have observed.


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AlgoTransparency, Cookies and Middleware

Earlier this week I came across AlgoTransparency, an interest group founded by Guillaume Chaslot who many people will recognise from The Social Dilemma. AlgoTransparency has commendable aims, they wish to:

  • Raise public awareness about the lack of transparency provided by the world’s most significant algorithms.
  • Influence international regulators with regards to policy approaches.
  • Pressurise the owners of significant algorithms to make changes to the way they operate.

This is an agenda I can get behind. End users should be provided with simple explanations about how the algorithms that power any given app or website work. And these explanations should satisfy both the need to understand the goal the algorithm has, for instance “time on site”, and (to the extent that it’s possible) the process that led to its final decision.1

There is a comparison to be made here with the EU’s fated “cookie policy”. While many people (myself included) lament the annoyance of consent pop-ups, it’s hard to deny that their presence has had a significant impact on the public’s understanding of how they are being tracked as they surf the web. And while it’s unlikely that many people spend time reading the descriptions of the different cookies a website uses, the mandated openness has created a new dataset for examination by journalists and privacy researchers. An effect I would expect to be replicated with greater algorithm transparency.

Importantly, the cookie policy enables users to opt-out of a website’s “non-essential” cookies. In the process of trying to do this you’re likely to come across all sorts of dark patterns that attempt to trick you into submission, but it should still be possible, if not, the website’s owner is breaking the law. There is no such option with algorithms. Partly because many of the algorithms we come into contact with provide essential functionality, but also because the website/app has a perfect monopoly over which algorithms you use.

I raise these points not because I think AlgoTransparency has picked the wrong fight – transparency will lead to a greater public understanding about algorithms and this is a worthy cause – but because transparency can only ever take us so far.

As I find myself regularly writing at the moment, algorithm choice, or more broadly, a marketplace for middleware, should be the direction we are headed. By creating choice for algorithms we diffuse the power they hold to multiple actors while retaining much of the value that comes with large platforms. I would also argue that a marketplace for middleware furthers the transparency cause because it makes transparency a vector by which consumers can vet their choice of algorithm. Developers who are open about the nature of their algorithms and the goals that its success is measured against, will surely be more appealing than those who choose to hide this information.

Another idea that I continually return to is that the successful regulation of tech/platforms/algorithms will be made up of many overlapping changes rather a single headline one. Break ups diffuse power, but aren’t going to make it easier to compete against network effects that protect YouTube. Full protocol interoperability will support new market entrants but would likely come with new kinds of risk to personal data. Algorithm transparency does little to alter the distribution of power, but will make developers more accountable.

I wonder if taking a more “agile” approach to regulation is what is needed, smaller changes, call them tests, that try to target specific problems rather than change everything in one go. I’m no expert on the history of regulatory approaches but my gut tells me that this isn’t a strategy that many policy makers would consider.

1 I add this caveat as it's important to remember that full algorithm transparency may not be possible. As Jenna Burrell points out in her excellent paper on opacity within machine learning.