Peter Merholz Interview

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Peter Merholz was blogging before there was a word for it. Better, he gave us the word 'blog'. He's a President and founding partner at Adaptive Path, along with Jesse James Garrett. Adaptive Path has designed web experiences for Creative Commons, flickr, and the United Nations, among others.

I caught up with Merholz after his talk at CAPCHI Ottawa for a little discussion about social media, delivering great experiences, social change, and yes, where the word 'blog' comes from.

In his talk, Merholz stressed that Web 2.0 is about people. The value of a site, he said, is found in the number of people in your network (network effects), even more than the quality of your service. The culture had to develop before people would use full-blooded early Web 2.0-like technologies such as epinions. Co-creation has become key, remixability of contents (like maps and RSS feeds), essential. Our tendency to anthropomorphize our technology is not to be underestimated, and must be factored in.

For Merholz, Web 2.0 is also about a particular kind of experience, and not about applications or interfaces. This means that you want to design simple, design in cool, and design from the experience out to the data, rather than from the data to the experience (ie.

Web 2.0, finally, is about participatory control. People reward sites that give them more control. Google good, Google maps (and mash-ups) better. Companies have recognized that they're part of an ecosystem: you only need develop the piece which is your core competence, and mash in (or let others mash in), the rest. By opening up their API's, and enabling other people to leverage them, Flickr and Google maps, for instance, are now everywhere.

Here is my distilled conversation at with Peter Merholz:

Mark Tovey: Being from Worldchanging, one of the things we're really interested in is the kinds of technologies that are altering the ways we do things. One of the things that I'm curious about are the things that you see up-and-coming which are disruptive technologies. The things that are on the bleeding edge, and are starting to supplant the way we traditionally do things.

Peter Merholz: We get very focussed on the web as a sort of isolated entity, and lose sight of its role in a larger context. What I'm seeing, that I think is potentially disruptive, is how these different channels of communication, these different media, these different devices, are coordinating to deliver an experience. Web teams are being given broader and broader charters to interact with the call-centre folks.

Let's say you're working at a bank. You're going to be working with the people who deliver that monthly statement. [You're going] to be working with the branches, so that it's less about a technological shift, and more about this appreciation of the variegated experience that someone has in trying to engage with an organization. So that's the first thing that comes to mind. And I think we're only just starting to see organizations figure out what it means to do that. What it means to really take advantages of these different media in a coordinated way.

I think some of what Maggie [Fox] was talking about today with respect to social media--blogs--still is disruptive in terms of organizations, particularly internally, in things like wikis, letting people determine what is important to them, and make the connections that they think are most relevant within an organization. Which often runs exactly contrary to what the management of that organization feels is important to communicate. I have a feeling that we'll increasingly see tension there, as workers try to communicate with one another about what matters to them, and that might not always appeal to, or be looked upon favourably by management, who has a certain set of ideas as to what should be discussed, or what approaches [should be taken] for addressing situations or certain problems.

One of the things though, and it was interesting, we were talking about distributed epistemology earlier -- and I think that one of the challenges that we face -- as you're looking at things like social media, as you're looking at systems like Digg. Digg is a great example. Once a site--once a technology--gains a certain amount of prominence, it become the subject of gaming, it becomes the subject of attacks. has a huge audience. If you've got something on that a lot of people were digging up, then you'd see a boatload of traffic. People realize that.

So now there are all these attempts to get your stuff to the top of digg. That kind of defeats the purpose, and they've had to institute a lot of kind of anti-gaming functionality, and in a sense you have this strange kind of arms race of the gamers and the site-creators, and I think there's actually a real problem there. Once something becomes too popular, it becomes a subject of attack. It's the same thing that happened to Microsoft Windows, and why it's so prone to security problems. And we're seeing it now with sites such as digg -- where if you concentrate too much power and influence in a certain locale, people will focus on that which essentially will diminish the value of it.

Google's been able to handle it pretty well, but there's still a lot of crap that you get when you do searches on Google in certain areas. If you try to find anything related to travel, or the travel industry, you just get spam blogs and all kind of web-sites that are just link farms, essentially. So figuring out how to manage that I think is going to be a challenge moving forward, in order to get real value from this potential distributed intelligence that's out there.

MT: What kinds of opportunities do you see out there for the social entrepreneur? For people who are attempting to contribute to their community, to contribute to public policy, to organize people together so they can go and do some particular thing--make sure, you know, that some homeless people are fed. Both at small and large levels--such that people can self-organize, think together about how to do [so] effectively, and accomplish things in a way that they weren't able to do before.

PM: I think that the opportunities are pretty much there right now. This is one of the things that's been, for me, one of the unmitigated boons of the internet... the lower barrier to entry, the ease of communication, the ease of publishing, the ability for people to find one another with shared interests, and shared passions. And to be able to act on it.

In -- 19... oh, what year was that -- I think it was 1990 -- I went from Santa Monica, California -- went to school for a year -- then i came back for the summer -- and the city of Santa Monica had launched PEN -- I forget what it was called -- the public electronic network or something -- and it was a bulletin board for the citizens of Santa Monica. You could dial in or go to your public library, and they had terminals that you could connect to PEN with. And almost immediately it was used by the citizens for what you're calling social entrepreneurship.

One of the members of PEN was a homeless person who was logging in through the library. He was an articulate homeless person. I don't know exactly why he was homeless -- he might have had a medical condition or something that was his challenge, but he was educated, articulate, and he was sharing his experience as a homeless person in Santa Monica, and why it was so hard once you landed in homelessness to free yourself from homelessness. Well, here he was sharing it with a group of -- Santa Monica is a very liberal town -- and people were like -- hearing this voice, wanting to react -- and so a group of folks -- and again, this was like 1990, 1991 -- you could probably do some Google searches about this -- formed a they called it, and I forget exactly what it stood for but -- SHWASHLOCK -- oh -- shower washer locker -- I think is kind of what it stood for.

Because that's what a homeless person needs in order to be presentable if they want to get a job. Their problem is they stink because they can't find a place to clean up. There's no place for them to do their laundry, so they need washers and dryers, and there's no place for them to store their stuff, they need a locker. So the citizens, I don't know how exactly, they raised money, they got a bond together, they did some activism, and were able to create a service for the homeless, to be able to clean up, essentially, and be presentable. And this was all done on an electronic bulletin board. So I think one of the lessons there is that given this kind of social media, social entrepreneurship will happen. Now, obviously you can use blogs and wikis and podcasts, and you can try to use these in a more orchestrated fashion, bulletin boards, etc, to really engender community, but I mean obviously, you're a representative of Worldchanging, and that's probably one of the better examples on a large scale of how these social media tools are encouraging social entrepreneurship on a large scale.

Something though that I think is interesting, and I don't know exactly what to make of it, is how, and I guess it's not technically social entrepreneurship, but there's been for some reason a barrier or challenge in developing tools for neighbourhoods. I live in Berkeley -- very active city -- and neighbourhoods don't have a lot to help them -- there's neighbourhood associations, but they're very poorly attended -- there's not a lot of activity -- though they're using email, and they're trying to use websites -- but there's just been this challenge in my experience in getting kind of your very local -- you know I'm talking literally on the span of a five block radius, half a mile radius, maybe you would say here in Canada, a one kilometre radius, to engage with one another, and I'm wondering if there's something about what you need in terms of critical mass, what you need in terms of getting the word out, like why is it that at these hyper-local levels we're not seeing these social media tools really take off the way that I think they should. Is there something about that scale? I don't know. I would need to research that more.

MT: What inspires you? What do you want to accomplish?

PM: What inspires me? So, what I want to accomplish, and what inspires me, is probably not co-incidentally, what we identify as the cause at Adaptive Path. So Adaptive Path is very much a values-driven organization, and the mission, the cause that everybody I work with sort of sets out to engage in, or to serve, I capture in this one sentence, which is that we want to deliver great experiences that improve people's lives. And that has been true from the beginning. That has been true since before, you know, I was working at Adaptive Path. Recognizing that the power of design to just improve people's lives, to just improve our communities, to improve our society, right, that if things were addressed with some intent, from a designerly perspective, that you would see a lot of benefit, you could potentially see a lot of benefit from that.

And I still have that passion, and a sort of related passion with respect to the web, and its ability to lower barriers of entry, its ability to bring people together to also kind of foment social change. That ability for people to have access to information that 15 years ago was simply unheard of. If you were a gay kid in rural Nebraska, you were alone. That's not true anymore now. There are ways for you to find similar people in similar situations, to connect, and to feel like you're not alone.

That is again one of those things that for me is great about the internet and one of the things that it provides, and one of the things that keeps me engaged, and wanted to continue working in this medium is that ability to enable those connections between people.

MT: "Blog" -- your coinage. What is the story behind that, and what makes it distinct? Or what made it distinct in the beginning?

PM: There was a word beforehand—'weblog'—and that is still used. There were a few of us who started doing something similar around that time, and we kind of formed this ad hoc community of webloggers, and it was a total lark. I've always liked to play with words, and so I was looking at the word "weblog" one day, and realized that if I switched the syllable from between the 'b' and the 'l' to between the 'e' and the 'b'—you would have "we"-blog. And so I sort of said, okay, from now on I'm going to call what I—this site of mine—a "we" blog. And I kind of ended up shortening that to 'blog'.

And it got no traction, apart from the 15 friends of mine, and whoever was reading my site—until not too long after that, the tool Blogger came out. Blogger was a tool from a company called Pyralabs, Evan Williams, [Meg] Hourihan, Paul Bausch—they were people I knew in the San Francisco kind of web design scene—and they you know, read my blogs—we didn't call it that at the time—they read my site, I read their site—so they knew what I was doing—and they came up with this tool, and they needed a name for it, and I guess, they thought weblogger was maybe a little too clunky, so 'Blogger,' shorter, and it was with the, a sense of Blogger that the word really took off. And it's interesting cos I thought about it a bit after the fact, and I think that by making it a one-syllable word, that made it extensible. So you could be a "blogg-er". "Blogg-ing"—that became a verb. Web-logging would have been a weird verb.

It also moved it away from—weblog could be confused with weblogs: the kind of web-analytics, the kind of server logs that web-sites produce. there was was always this confusion when you were talking about web-logs—did you mean this form of personal website, or did you mean the data that a webserver spits out that tracks all the pages that people have seen, and all the hits that have been made on a webserver? So blog made it a—you could only be talking about one thing—this new form of website—devoted to personal expression—or at least ease of publishing—and then also by it being a single syllable, you could have the blogosphere, you could have videoblogging, moblogging—it just made it this malleable concept that you could add on to as new opportunities arose.

MT: Terrific—thank you very much.

PM: My pleasure—thank you.


Peter is right to say "we can do that now" - with respect to web 2.0 and social entrepreneurship. It is astounding what we can do and what the wider social implications are - but really we're going to have to be very very patient about this.
Web 2.0 is going to maintain a kind of a "gee-whiz" idealistic and liminal presence in our lives for many years while the big institutions in society (education, religion, mass media, big business, and politics) instinctively firewall against it. Those entities will have to change eventually, but the old ways will die hard. :)

Posted by: Michael Pilling on January 13, 2008 4:18 PM