Here’s a presentation I’m giving here later today.
Hi, I’m Dan O’Neil, and I want to talk to you about popularity and impact in software. All of us here are somehow a part of the civic innovation sector of the technology industry, which has largely been a volunteer-driven movement.
There are some lessons to be had by looking at other volunteer-driven movements. Specifically, I want to dive in a tiny bit into other movements that I’ve seen up-close, first-hand, because the more I work in civic tech, the more I see value in these other examples.
I am a recovering alcoholic, and have been for some time. I have come to learn and appreciate this program, and it really helps me live a good life. I am also a poet. In the 1980s and 90s, I wrote books and did tours.
I considered myself— in kind of a windmill-tilting way— a member of the entertainment industry. It was a shtick. But the idea was real— that poetry should be at the center of society. And entertainment was— and still is— at the center of society.
And I am in civic tech. I made my first civic app in 1999. It was called KilleronTheLoose.com. It let people know via Wireless Application Protocol when there was a killer on the loose, and they might kill them. True story.
True story. And I’ve worked in civic tech since then. So I have experience with three separate international movements that are based on volunteer labor. Let’s take a closer look.
Alcoholics Anonymous is the most successful decentralized movement in history. There are explicitly no leaders. The whole thing is run, to this day, by principles + suggestions codified in 1939 + 1947.
The 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous have not changed since they were first written down. More than 30 million copies exist. There are dozens of groups— we might even call them “projects” based on this text— Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, Smokers Anonymous. Forked code; all of it.
The impact of this movement is widespread in the economy. A huge portion of the health industry, every self-help book. Hell, the entire 70s.
I’ve never competed in a poetry slam, but I was there at its creation. It, too, has a strict set of rules, and they are maintained over time by volunteers.
The rules specifically cover compensation, which is minimal. The winner of the Uptown Poetry Slam gets a $10 bill, presented dramatically onstage. The key is the joy of self-expression, of doing something that is special, unique.
Nearly 30 years after its creation, the poetry slam movement has achieved a certain National Poetry Month/ Sunday Styles section – level popularity. In contrast, rap & hip-hop— another sector of the entertainment industry that relies in some part of spoken word— is dominant, and generates enormous dollars.
Civic tech doesn’t really have a founding set of rules, but we’ve certainly developed routines and norms with hackathons and other volunteer / “for the civic good” programs.
We do have the 8 Principles of Open Government Data, which I helped write, in 2007. It specifically calls out the publication of data with personally identifiable information, noting (correctly) that it should not be published.
Due, in part, to the fact that there’s been little effort to re-combine personally identifiable information in our products, it’s fair to say that civic tech has generated little revenue and had little impact on culture. Meanwhile, the larger technology industry is taking over culture.
So what’s going on here? If we accept this analysis, what accounts for the vastly different impact patterns? To me, it’s a matter of framing and focus. AA is about product + service for the masses, poetry slam is about individual expression + satisfaction grown city by city.
And it’s the underlying attitude toward professionalization and commercialization that makes the difference. AA is radically indifferent— we’re focused on staying sober, not policing adherents. In contrast, the “Slam Masters” from each city that adopts the slam meet yearly. They enforce a sort of sameness that is palpable, and exclusionary.
The result is a default openness in AA. Onboarding is a breeze. People desperately want what people in recovery have— sobriety. Slams, in contrast, have complex modes of operation, full of insider references and tight networks. Above all, glorifying the singular poet with a microphone.
We have our own poets in civic tech, our own open mics, our own singular heroes. The result is separation and divorce. Meanwhile, aggressive startups, all about disruption and de-regulation, eat our lunch in our cities, building software people love.
They are popular. And through their popularity, they have impact. And we don’t make popular things. And we have to, because we’re better than everyone else. The larger technology industry needs us. Let’s make products, not projects.