Default To Public

I’ve been reading a "pre-galley" of Jeff Jarvis’ new book What Would Google Do?  It comes out on January 27th. It’s a good read, perfect for a flight. It’s not too dense, full of great quotes and insights. I’m enjoying it. One of my favorite take-aways from the book is the value of public interaction.

Early in the book, Jeff quotes Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr, saying that early on they made an important decision when each photo uploaded to Flickr "defaulted to public". The ensuing interaction around the photos gave life to the service and helped it become what it is today.

But my favorite story on this topic from Jeff’s book is about Mark Zuckerberg while he was still a student at Harvard. It goes like this:

At Davos, Mark told the story of an art class he took at Harvard. He was busy starting Facebook and didn’t have time to attend the class or study. The final exam was a week away and he was worried about flunking. So he went to the Internet and downloaded images of all the art that he knew would be on the exam (not sure how he knew that – Jeff leaves that part out). He puts them all up on a web page and adds blank boxes under each of them. Then he emails the web page to all of his classmates and tells them he just put up a study guide. The class responds by marking up the page, editing each other, and getting it perfect. Zuckerberg aces the exam, of course, but also the professor told him that the entire class had done much better than usual on the exam.

I like this story because it shows the value of public interaction. Yes, Mark in classic Tom Sawyer fashion got them to do his work for him, but they also got better as a group. They did it together.

I got a comment from a reader named Michael Rattner last week.  In it he said:

When I was an engineering TA about a decade ago, I made a rule: I would
not provide homework help over email, but only provide it in the class
forum. My initial reason was that, with 150 students, I didn’t have
time for so much email and I wanted all my hints to be available to all
the students, equally. The students weren’t happy about this, until I
proved that any question asked in the forum was answered by me within a
couple of hours (and generally, minutes).

But what was cool was
that once the discussions became public, the answers kept getting
better, because rather than me interacting with one student at a time,
I was continuously challenged by all my students at the same time! And
students were helping students.

Unfortunately university policy
was to delete the forums after a class was over, to prevent cheating,
or some such petty reason.

But to summarize, many to many
communication still does not have the respect it deserves, but it is a
very powerful communications medium.

That’s an equally powerful story with a bad ending. Deleting public forums is wrong in my view. This is knowledge we’re talking about folks. And deleting knowledge is a bad idea, period.

I encourage all of our companies and all the companies that I meet with to "default to public" as much as they possibly can. Sure, there are some things that should remain private, but not nearly as many things as people initially think. The value of public discourse and enagement around content/information/knowledge vastly outweighs most of the privacy concerns most of the time.