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On Digital Davids and Goliaths

My latest Interaction column for Print Magazine is now out in the April issue! And, hey, look, they kept my original title (first time)! Neat. Also, the illustration is by Bryan Dalton.

I’ve reposted it here, though you’ll soon be able to read it over at Print. Or, you can always pick it up in its native yet ephemeral dead-tree format 😉

Here’s a familiar story: Back in 1996, when the web was about the size of a postage stamp, five different search engines struck a very expensive deal with Netscape, the most popular browser at the time. For $5 million per year, Yahoo!, Magellan, Lycos, Infoseek, and Excite would each have a turn as the browser’s featured search tool. Meanwhile, two unknown students were putting the finishing touches on a completely novel approach to search, one that would render the others obsolete. Just one year later, they registered their whimsical domain name and invited web users to start searching with their tech. The following year, their company was incorporated. I think you know the rest.

After spending years studying Google from the inside, the journalist Steven Levy recently concluded in his book In the Plex that Google, once a David, “had become a Goliath.” And such a Goliath, I might add, that many will strain to remember that the company ever had its David days. For many, the awareness of Google was virtually simultaneous with its ubiquity.

The David and Goliath framework is often used to tell a story of replacement—typically one idea, technology, or company for another—when it really should describe resistance. The defeat of Goliath was not so much about a succession of similar champions but the resistance of one culture to another. While Goliath was about warmongering, brutality, and pomp, David was, at the time, just a kid who didn’t want to be assimilated into such a regime. Rather than being a culture of one, as Goliath boasted, David was one of a culture. So if we’re going to use the metaphor, we should apply it first to cultural conflicts—and, fortunately, there are many in our very own digital neighborhood.

While members of today’s online nouveau grande—Google, Facebook—continue to expand their empires, scores of independent teams see an opportunity to create alternative tools and services. Instead of trying to reinvent the world, these smaller-scale players are realigning things on the basis of ideas important to Generation Y. In every case, whether applied to social networking, shopping, e-reading, or even travel, their sensibility—a digital-vĂ©ritĂ© aesthetic that emphasizes authenticity over slickness—is smartly used to communicate a subtle but welcome message. Think of it as the Etsy-fication of everything: As soon as you see it, you trust that it was made for you by someone like you.

At the forefront of this cultural shift are social networks. In a wonderful bit of synchronicity, Facebook announced a redesign of its user profiles—called Timeline—just as the designer Jonathan Harris prepared to unveil his latest project, a new web community called Cowbird. Though Cowbird isn’t a competing social network per se, it is a direct challenge to Facebook’s claim on online storytelling. As you are likely one of Facebook’s 800 million users, I need not explain the details of how Timeline works. Suffice it to say that Facebook wants to define storytelling as an algorithmic process—aggregating data and regurgitating biography—rather than a human one. Cowbird, on the other hand, offers a creative digital environment in which to explore a different kind of storytelling, one that requires thoughtful consideration of the stories we tell, how we tell them, and who might be listening. Cowbird is about art; Facebook, automation.

The Cowbird homepage is a grid of big, beautiful images that subtly shift as you hover over them, as if responding to your gaze. Facebook, on the other hand, opens with a sortable array of tiny avatars and text snippets, its speed and miniaturization a subtle message of their own: Feeding the machine takes priority over feeding the soul. Hyperbole? Perhaps. But it is difficult not to see Cowbird as a repudiation of so-called “social” media, especially in light of its declared mission to encourage “a deeper, longer-lasting kind of storytelling than you’re likely to find anywhere else on the Web.” Bridging the gap between Facebook and the authenticity we hunger for today is a simple matter of choice: the story your data tells or the story you want to tell. We intuitively know that exposing the details of our comings and goings on Facebook in chronological order isn’t storytelling, anyway. It’s accounting—the world view of Goliath, Inc. To be fair, Facebook offers the “chance to get your timeline looking the way you want.” In other words, you can opt out of the accounting, provided you are interested in taking the time to painstakingly audit your story. Something is backward here.

Cowbird isn’t the only David out there offering creative resistance to large and imposing Goliaths. In fact, its growth clarifies the larger cultural conflict of which it is a part. The Diaspora Project, boosted by a successful Kickstarter campaign, offers an alternative, decentralized social network that preserves users’ data ownership as well as their privacy. Kickstarter itself is a wonderful example too—a completely new peer-to-peer approach to fundraising for creative projects. Other digital Davids include Airbnb.com, which is localizing travel and accommodations and offering us all the chance to be innkeepers; Findings and Readmill, which are exploring the notion of “social reading”; and even Quarterly, which uses web tools to organize a completely offline, bespoke content experience that intimately connects the creator with the consumer. You subscribe to someone, and that person sends you something in the mail: very cool. Each of these efforts is positioned to scratch a very particular itch. Whether users trust them to do so depends in large part on how their earnest, just-like-you message is articulated, both in word and image.

Of course, that leaves open the question of whether a Goliath like Facebook could learn from a David like Cowbird and adopt its approach. I suppose that’s a possibility—at least on an aesthetic level—but a meaningful change would require a strategic scaling back that Facebook’s investors are unlikely to approve. Though appearances mattered, the real distinction between David and Goliath was motivation.

It’s not just the biggest ideas or broadest executions that make for compelling David and Goliath stories. We’ve come to expect those. Waiting for a giant to fall has become an American pastime, if not the central artery of tech journalism. Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at The Atlantic, put it well: “There is no next Facebook.” Instead, the many social tools that we use for many different reasons form a cross-section of what he calls “the social media biome.” Perhaps nested in this idea is another insight, about not just the evolution of the technological discourse but the true nature of authenticity. It is certainly not uniform; it is as diverse as we are.