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.

#VC & Technology

Comments (Archived):

  1. Carlos Pero

    Sounds like an interesting book, I’ll look for it.”Default to public” is also a reason why Web 2.0 sites like Delicious have trumped Web 1.0 equivalents like Backflip. Backflip defaulted to private, intending to be a service rather than a community.

  2. fredwilson

    Thanks. I’ll check out the links. Seems like interesting stuff

  3. erlichson

    Interestingly, except for your list of friends, most information on facebook defaults to private. And yet it grew like a weed. Facebook does not have content that is well optmized for search engines, which is really what ‘default to public’ helps with. But it is genuinely viral ‘out of band.’

    1. michaelgalpert

      when facebook first started i believe it defaulted to public for your school/network

      1. erlichson

        Fair point, but school level visibility us far from being public. I agree with the concept. The degree to which you can create content that is visible and useful to a larger number of people, the greater the network effect is for a service. To some extent, facebook benefits at this point from being the social network where you are most likely to find that your friends are already registered. Your registration being public benefits the growth of the service greatly.Facebook has always had a good ear for carefully drawing the line between what uou want private and what you are willing to share with all. And when they have made mistakes they usually have quicky responded with privacy controls.

    2. Jeff Jarvis

      Good point, but I think Facebook is still public – to my public. The success of Facebook comes, I think, from restoring real identity and real relationships to our connections online as we have them in real life. It also gives us control of our public. So I can choose to broadcast something to my friends and networks but not the world. That’s public in the sense that a campus and school are.

      1. daryn

        I think that’s really a key concept right there, “public – to my public”.Looking forward to the book!

  4. Dan Blank

    Fred,Like you, I am finding many examples of openness on the web that has had overwhelming (and surprising) positive affects. One, is simply embracing the idea that oversharing is good.It is a huge cultural shift we are undergoing when people share photos and status updates on sites like Flickr, Twitter, blogs, Facebook, etc. This goes deeper than just “public or private,” but down to some basic human fears and protections they place around their ego and indentities. Personally, I feel that this openness is a huge step forward, allowing people to look past petty fears, jealousies, and barriers that are limiting.An interesting case study in “how open is too open,” comes from LEGO’s reaching out to their community to find new ideas for products. My favorite LEGO blog put a call out to their readers that LEGO wants their ideas for new LEGO sets. At first, people posted their ideas in the comments section, but then LEGO asked them to submit ideas via a contact form, so that LEGO’s competitors wouldn’t steal the ideas. You can read about it here:http://www.brothers-brick.c…(you should also check out the rest of that blog to see some amazing LEGO creations – all of which arise form the passion of fans.)Last year, I blogged about a social media case study from LEGO that you may also find interesting. Similar themes:…Have a great day.-Dan

  5. zburt

    Last year I was taking Discrete Math and we were given a review sheet with questions for the final, but not enough time to meet with the TA for section and go over solutions. So I started a PBWiki (http://discretemath07.pbwik… and emailed the URL so we students could collaborate as necessary. It turned out that one of the TAs was my principal collaborator, but hey, the Wiki helped me learn the stuff.

  6. fredwilson

    Great points Andy ­ entrepreneurs need to ³come out of the closet²

    1. andyswan

      …..not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    2. erlichson

      There are competitive advantages that come out of secrecy. Mike moritz is fond of saying that one of the few advantages startups have is stealth and speed. Apple certainly is doing just fine by releasing very little information about future products and not holding their product design meetings in a public forum. Similarly, Amazon has many enlightened policies and is relentlessly focused on the user experience but let’s not pretend they are “open.” ask them about their kindle sales or key metrics about their amazon prime program.Whether startups would benefit from increased openness is somewhat orthogonal from whether startups benefit when they get users to create content that is public or nearly so.Any disclosure by an entrepreneur needs to be weighed against the potential benefits to that disclosure and drawbacks. When speaking one on one, especially to an expert, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. Entrepreneurs who walk around with NDAs are just plain silly. But I am not sure that entrepreneurs are well served by disclosing every idea they have in the most public forum possible and getting maximum feedback from the crowd.It also matters how good you are at modeling the world without the consensus of the crowd. Steve Jobs and apple tells us what we want and removes features that he believes are superfluous to clean up the design. But of course, he seems especially good at predicting what the public will consume. And yes, they do focus groups but in a pretty confidential way.

  7. berkay

    “This is knowledge we’re talking about folks. And deleting knowledge is a bad idea, period.” Absolutely agreed. In Zuckerberg’s art class example, the group has learned not because the end product has existed but because the group has created the site together themselves and learned during the process. I’m guessing the intent of deleting the knowledge is to provide the same experience Zuckerberg’s class had to all classes. There must be a better way to accomplish that then deleting what’s been created, though it may not be obvious

  8. howardlindzon

    For stocktwits investor tagline I asked my twitter followers to lend a hand. @bfia came up with the tagline in about one minute that we loved and used. there were 50 GREAT ones submitted.At Wallstrip, many of our shows were submitted and than written buy the viewers. community driven for sure.great post

  9. howardlindzon

    Actually – I have a post up on Brands that could DIE in 2009 -posted a few minutes ago and tons of community feedback on what brands to waTCH FOR EXTINCTION.

  10. fredwilson

    YupZuckerberg is the real deal for sureA very impressive person

  11. fredwilson

    That¹s why I love that disqus supports facebook connect profiles forcommenting on this blogWhen you comment as an identfied person with a lot of data behind thatprofile, you take care to comment correctlyIt¹s very powerful

  12. fredwilson

    Great song, great line, great band

  13. andyswan

    There are a couple other reasons that I really like taking ideas public….for entrepreneurs especially:1. You mentally devalue the “secrecy” of an idea. It is a tough leap for many….but soon it’s quite clear that ideas are a dime a dozen and improve with early & often feedback2. You put yourself into a corner by adding the risk of a more public failure. People do their best work when backed into a corner. It’s much easier to quit on a business that you’ve been secretly working on.3. You become a magnet for others interested and passionate about what you are doing. Sure….by keeping your idea secret, you’re reducing the minute chance that someone will “steal” your idea…..but you’re also creating a massive wall that eliminates the MUCH MORE PROBABLE outcome of attracting high quality people to your project.

    1. CLaRGe

      Great points. It’s easy to think that your idea is so unique and powerful that someone will steal it. But the fact is that execution is so hard that THAT ALONE eliminates many competitors. Also, on the point about exposing yourself to failure, I learned some time ago that, unless I make myself accountable to others there is little chance that I will try when the going gets tough.As for “default to public” this is a great idea for what it’s worth. It’s not everything. In fact what Zuckerberg demonstrated with his solution to his dilemma was in the very least “openness”. He demonstrated shrewdness, savvy, and leadership. His idea worked because HE did it, not because it was done.

  14. scott crawford

    Excellent. Thanks, as always, Fred. This is so very crucial as the old gatekeepers lose their roles, and we more and more come to rely on one another for our distribution of information/knowledge, To quote the Peppers — “Give it away now!”

  15. MartinEdic

    In social media the real value comes from two aspects that unique to most social media sources: They are public and the effect of a conversation is exponential. We deal with marketing agencies and those who don’t understand these values always question the value of engagement in social media. They still have the ‘blast your message out to the world’ mentality that says that engagement is too granular, too one on one, to be cost effective. This leaves out the fact that an engagement that adds value is read by many and spread by many. It’s an entirely new eco-system for communication of all kinds including mar-comm.As for openness, we made a decision expose our pricing on our site and offer a fully functioning free version of our app without requiring a conversation with a sales rep. We are the only company in our space to do so and it has proven very effective, generating business and building a user-community that provides a lot of valuable input.

    1. fredwilson

      Great decision, self service for the win!

  16. fredwilson

    Beacon has got to come back in a different formSomething like it would be a huge revenue producer for facebook

  17. lawrence coburn

    From an actual account settings perspective, there’s a bit of a generational divide between “default to public” and “default to private.” Younger folks tend to be ok with default to public, older folks tend to get a bit rattled by it. It’s certainly easier to build a business with default to public due to the network, seo, and community effects.One thing I really admire about Zuckerberg is his courage in making decisions related to “default to public” that move the community forward, yet piss off a not trivial number of folks. The newsfeed is a great example of one that worked out well, and Beacon (which I still think is brilliant) is one that worked out not as well.

    1. Dorian Benkoil

      I don’t know that it’s generational. More of a mindset, I’d conjecture. my comment below notes that some in a marketing class I taught eagerly contributed to a social network while others were resistant, regardless of age.

  18. Jim Gray

    That’s a very creative move with the art class. We did have that technology in the early 90’s.

  19. Gabriel Griego

    Great examples of the value of public interaction. I have been fascinated to see this happen at our company, Wesabe (which Fred’s company has invested in – full disclosure), primarily because our community deals with personal financial issues, which are extremely sensitive. When I first joined a year ago, I like many others, was skeptical that quality financial advice could come from public interaction, and we still get that skepticism from people who haven’t visited our forums. Yet, time and again we hear from members what a difference the advice makes for them, and interestingly enough, not only on a functional level. They also talk about the emotional support they get from the feeling that they’re “not in it alone”. For many people it seems that it still “takes a village” to help them get through it. Tom Sawyer indeed.

    1. fredwilson

      GabeI wonder if defaulting to public can ever happen with the data itself when it comes to personal financeI think it certainly can for aggregated data but what about my own data?I do it with my stock trades but not the actual dollars involved on covestorMaybe something similar could work with wesabe

      1. Gabriel Griego

        Interestingly enough there is quite a bit of public disclosure of personal data going on in the discussion forums. It’s not quite “defaulting to public”, but in a discussion titled “How much debt do you have and how fast are you paying it off?” hundreds of new members have been posting their personal data on debt, spending and income over the past nine months. It seems to serve as a sort of beginning point or inspiration for people to embark upon their own get out of debt expedition. I’ll bet that if we provided members a tool to select “default to public” for certain aspects of their data, many of them would take advantage of it.

        1. fredwilson

          I agree

  20. Michael Rattner

    *blush* Thanks Fred!Openness is not just an online strategy. It’s a reputation strategy for individuals and blogs as well. I have a good friend, a mentor, actually, who is one of the most brilliant nanotechnologists I’ve ever met. But he was locked away in the labs of a giant company for the past decade or so. Now he has a startup but he’s having trouble establishing himself without the giant company brand behind him.This is the sort of scientist who is constantly inventing things. He has more ideas per day than I’ll have in a year. So many that if he does 10% of what he thinks up, he will be among the most accomplished engineer/scientists on the planet. But he was raised in the corporate culture of secrecy. Where ideas are currency, not marketing.Just the other day, I suggested to him that he give his ideas away, freely (default to public?). Not the one or two he wants to make money from, but most everything else – on a blog. Because being the first to an idea is what makes someone a thought leader, someone worth listening to. By running a conversation, I’m convinced that the right people will find him, rather than the other way around.This all reminds me of the Cluetrain Manifesto.

  21. Guest

    Interesting discussion. In my experience (business)people who are overly secretive invariably suffer from some self-esteem/insecurity issues…In general, advocates for “privacy” in the startup world need to understand that whatever they gain in the form of proprietary advantages is counterbalanced by what they lose when you deprive yourself from the powerful public corrective. If you do things in the dark you have to realize that it is very easy to bumble and stumble in the dark and be completely wrong.Unfortunately, as Andy Swan pointed out, many people create the cloak of secrecy precisely out of fear of public failure. What Andy doesn’t say, however, is that often this strategy does not work: things just have a way of coming out in daylight.My wife has this great allegory: some people are like fish who cannot swim in the ocean so they like to be in a little puddle where they have control, swim comfortably and think that everything is OK. But then a wave comes in and they are right smack in the middle of the ocean, and cannot look more pathetic…

  22. Yule Heibel

    QUOTESo 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). UNQUOTEHe would have known because in all likelihood the art history professor made available to the students a complete list of all the slides shown during class (or else the slides / images for which the students would be responsible). Back in my day (14th century or so), we didn’t get that advantage, but by the time I was teaching art history at Harvard (as a Teaching Fellow) or at MIT or Brown, it was standard to help students in this way.Maybe the lesson is that you crowd-source for information and for building a product, but that you also have enough information / intelligence beforehand so you know what you’re supposed to be “sourcing” for…?Re. failure: **that’s** a fascinating subject. Just the other day I came across an entry on the Blog, “So You Think You’re A Big Fat Failure – You Wish!” ( It was posted back in Sept., starts like this:QUOTEYou know what I say to people who call themselves failures? You wish! To fail is to have tried, to have given it your all and failed regardless. Most people don’t fail; most people give up too early or never even try. Those people are not failures. You’ve got to earn that title, man.UNQUOTEWritten by Evan Carmichael (apologies if he’s already a known entity here, so many names, I can’t keep track of everyone!)Anyway, failure is significant as a learning process. Without failure, no learning. One of the problems in current K-12 education and possibly parenting is that we strive too hard to insulate (and isolate) our children from failure, because we think it will hurt their self-esteem.

    1. fredwilson

      Thanks for that info Yule. I had no idea that you taught art history at Harvard, MIT, and BrownI’ve always thought its wrong that the readers/commenters know so much about me but I know so little about all of you.Little tidbits like this one really help me and make me proud to have such a great group of people reading this blog

      1. Yule Heibel

        Well, my career *was* short-lived – my son was born at the same time as I finished my dissertation (he was 9months old when I got my first teaching gig at MIT), and my daughter was born 3 years later (after a teaching stint at Brown that involved commuting from Boston’s North Shore to Providence, RI – crazy).I would have loved to have stayed at MIT, but it’s very hard to find all the extra hours to meet the demands of what at the beginning is basically a vocation, almost monkish in terms of what it requires in devotion. My colleagues mostly had wives at home – but in my case, I was the wife, lol…I’m the first person in my family to get any kind of secondary education, so obviously also the first to go to grad school and get a PhD. No immediate role models to speak of, and my Marxist academic advisor was too busy critiquing the capitalist system (all from a safely theoretical perspective while ensconced at Harvard and later Berkeley, of course) to do anything much to support or mentor *any* of his students, perhaps because in his mind helping us in a practical way (through networking support, for example) would have implied buying into “the system.”Left largely to my own devices I didn’t do as well as I should have, that’s for sure. I guess it means I have some personal experience with failure… 😉 Anyway, now I’m oversharing!Oh, and PS just in case anyone is wondering: Mark Zuckerberg was never in any of the art history sections I taught at Harvard. I think he was there in the mid- or late-90s?, while I got my PhD in 1991. 😉

        1. fredwilson

          I think the gotham gal would sympathize with your career challenges and choicesWith two daughters, I am acutely aware how hard it is on women who want to have a career and a family

  23. Guest

    Hi Fred,This posting, in combination with your post about Facebook still being the center of the world for your kids, prompted me to start a long overdue blog about how different generations view (and use) social media. I just don’t think that “Public” is too easy for most of the upcoming generation unless they feel they are insulated (like a college website) – they’ve been taught to be careful by their wise parents! (us) Facebook is save and insulated too (people used to feel that way about AOL, although they used screen names). I linked back to your post from my blog, and I will have my teenagers occasionally write. 3 generations and how they all live with social media ( , it is interesting to think (and write) about.

    1. fredwilson

      I couldn’t tag my daughters in a facebook photo from my niece the other day because my daughters won’t ‘friend” me on facebookI understand why they won’t friend me, but these privacy settings get in the way of discovery (in this case their discovery)

      1. Guest

        Fred my kids are the same, won’t friend me. But if you go to the niece (I’m sure she is connected to you-that’s the case for me) and look at her friends, you will find your daughters there and can click on her to see everything via that connection. Unless they knew to go and make their settings super private (not the default, which is “let all friends and friends of friends see me, or something like that).

  24. tempo

    “Default to public” is our refrain at Get Satisfaction. The big question that we started the business around was “what would customer service look like if it defaulted to public?” We had the Flickr anecdote in mind, and thought this inversion of traditional assumptions could be transformative not just for the company, but for customers, too. The social norm for customer service interactions is usually all around defensiveness, so we hypothesized that the right kind of public context could change the social norm to mutually sympathetic. We’ve been very pleased with the results, though the perennial challenge of anonymity and misaligned expectations are still tough nuts to crack.

    1. fredwilson

      I love what you all are doing with getsatisfaction. It clearly shows that publicly customer service is a better model

  25. fredwilson

    I am not that eager to watch what my kids do on facebook. I just wanted to tag them in a photo

    1. Guest

      I’m not either but I had something happen with my younger daughter (now 15)2 years ago that scared me. I got a phone bill with hundreds of text msgsto Utah. We don’t know anybody in Utah. Found out it was someone she meton an MMO in a game, 23 years old, she was too naive and actually gave outher phone number for text. And I had given plenty of talks about privacy,but somehow in a game she felt differently. She referred to him as her BFin a text (I asked her to show me her phone after I saw the bill). I agreetotally with giving my kids privacy but – just in case. I am sure shelearned her lesson from that at a young age, she was absolutely freaked out(so was I).

      1. fredwilson

        That would freak me out too!

        1. Guest

          Oh PS, the guy said he was 13 and never thought any differently.Your trip sounds amazing – you will keep up as the kids go to school but Iknow exactly what you mean about travel changing. They have opinions andwant to do what they want to do so things change. But my kids remembertheir years of growing up in terms of our traveling (much like yours)…sofar so regardless of stress it seems it has been the best investment we evermade in terms of our family unity. I am only one year ahead of you with myoldest by the way. Safe travels!

          1. fredwilson


  26. Doug Kersten

    You got that right!!

  27. Joe DiPasquale

    That type of course info-sharing is also what we’re going for with . . . everyone adding, sharing, and creating information for all to see from the wisdom of crowds.

  28. Michael_Josefowicz

    Nice quote. Education may turn out to be fixed with a “get out of the way” approach.from Michael Rattner, in the post.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.

  29. Dorian Benkoil

    Today, I’ve made public the Ning social network my students and I used in my MBA-level digital marketing class at the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch. (I first gave the students multiple chances and notices to delete any material they did not want the world to see — during the class, whose grading period formally ended yesterday, I wanted all to be in a “safe” environment free from possible embarrassment, employment risks, etc.). It’s here http://internetmarketingbar…, including dozens and dozens of links to articles, etc, from the students and me.The students’ weekly assignments were posted publicly, as were discussions, videos and more. Some students took to it, and enhanced each others’ material. Others, despite urgings, continued to send material to me privately and resisted posting publicly. I can say that I learned from the students’ public sharing in a way I might not have had they not shared and discussed with each other, and I believe the level of discussion improved both on the network and in class, as well. It’s been a learning experience for me, and I believe the next classes I teach will be enhanced by this experience — I also hope the experience for students will continually get better.

    1. fredwilson

      Wow, that¹s great dorianIt¹s interesting that you used a social network platform like Ning insteadof a wiki platfrom like media wiki

      1. Dorian Benkoil

        Thanks. I’d love to hear more about how you think a Wiki could/would have been useful in such a class. I could imagine incorporating one, in addition to the social network. I considered a wiki, but guessed that for the purpose of assignments, and the requirement that I grade them, I had to have contributions remain distinct and separate, to know what an individual student contributed. Also, wikis I’ve used tend to require a bit more acumen — the user, at the least, has to know how to do simple linking and understand basic Web authoring. Finally, social networks make it easier to sift and segment — this stuff here is assigned, that stuff over there is optional, and so on.Separately, I could imagine a Digital Marketing Wiki — something to which anyone teaching a course like this, or who is interested in participating in the scholarship, could contribute. Something to start, perhaps.

        1. fredwilson

          Good points about where a wiki comes up short

        2. skmurphy

          Wikis dissolve individual authorship into a team or group. For class assignments that are group projects you might find your students already using wikis: they are a great way for a small team to reach a working consensus on a document against a deadline.

          1. Dorian Benkoil

            Teams using wikis is a great idea. Not sure it works for individual assignments, where the students’ voices need to be preserved as distinct.

  30. Kyle Mathews

    I’m helping run an experimental class at BYU where the class is run mostly over an collaboration site. Students choose their own topics of study and self-organize into groups where there’s a shared interest. A key part of the design of the class is as you say, the default for everything that happens is public. All homework, projects are submitted to the group website so students can see each other’s work and learn from one another.This is a huge difference from a regular class where students submit work into the dark belly of the homework beast, never to see the light of day again.The class website:

    1. fredwilson

      Unclass – I love it!

  31. Kyle Mathews

    Ha! Completely agree.