Isaac Mao has been called the ultimate Chinese digital guru, maintaining interests in commerce, electronic communication, and, increasingly, network politics. He is broadly labelled a venture capitalist, blogger, software architect, entrepreneur, and researcher in learning and social technology, dividing his time between research, social work, business, and technology.
He is currently venture partner at Neuron VC, director of the Social Brain Foundation (foundation for social media and free culture in China, including particularly access, speech and thiking freedom), and advisor to Global Voices Online. He is now a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, developing his Sharism theory discussed below.
As one of the earliest bloggers in the Chinese community, Mao was a co-founder of CNBlog.org, the earliest grassroots publishing evangelism site in China, and a co-organizer of the annual Chinese Blogger Conference. The CNBlog team later became the Social Brain Foundation, which promotes social media and free culture in China, particularly including free access, free speech, and free thinking. The Foundation currently supports Idea Factory, Memedia, Digital Nomads, Open Education, and Creative Commons China, among other initiatives. As a trained software engineer, he has a long history in leading the development of both business and consumer software. After turning to social computing research, Isaac organized the first Social Software Forum in China.
Sharism, broadly speaking, is an ideology that attempts to reconcile the sometimes idealistic cultures of open source and new media theory with the tech business community, creating viable options for both content sharing and progressive models of profitability. Expanding on a conception of “cloud intelligence” that he has presented previously in several exhibitions and essays, Isaac Mao here clarifies how and why everyone from artists and dissidents to investors and marketers should open up their lives and work in order to protect their own interests, offering a solution for networked creativity that moves beyond the Californian ideology at long last.
Hoping to hear a more personal perspective on how this technical framework may one day be implemented, Isaac Mao met with me in the basement cafe of the Sogo Department Store in Causeway Bay on a rainy Hong Kong day, just days before his second child was born.
Robin Peckham: I’m glad we found the chance to meet today, because I was moderating a panel on the opening up of digital art archives at the Wikitopia conference on collaborative futures yesterday and we talked briefly about Sharism. In that vaguely academic context, it seems that the theoretical framework of the project is relatively clear at this point, but have you made any progress in actual implementation, in getting the word out to a wider audience?
Isaac Mao: That’s part of the philosophy of Sharism: you have to tell people how it can work in the physical world, the real world. I try to observe how people can benefit from these ideas in daily life, particularly through their organizations and other social activity like so-called social enterprises. Sharing is not just giving; there is also a return on your interests. It amplifies your contribution to society, without which you cannot be sustainable all the time. Before I started the Sharism project I focused more purely on technology, especially on how people implement different kinds of new technologies that help people meaningfully collaborate. We should try to think about the marks and traces that we create over time. The traditional system does not truly log our achievements in the long-term. Sharism gives you a path: you can always look back, and we can maintain have our own grassroots space on a human scale, a history written by individuals. With this we can create a scenario of cloud intelligence, and as people relay their knowledge into this cloud one by one these changes can reach a certain level.
Robin Peckham: Speaking of which, how does privacy fit in with the context of Sharism?
Isaac Mao: I think privacy is becoming more important. Sharism gives people a better sense of the social spectrum. Previously, we only had two polar modes: private and public, and of course we don’t like our private things to become public. However, we are now living in a spectrum that we never sensed before. Some things are private at some times, but at others they are not, depending on the context or who we are with. This is a spectrum that we can manage and come to consensus on what kind of information we can share or don’t like to share. Sometimes I share different things to different people. It’s a kind of strategy. We intuitively manage privacy now. Of course sometimes I don’t like to share my private phone number and private address in some places, like perhaps in China. But in other countries it may be different, depending on cultural difference or safety.
But we are seeing changes. In China, many dissidents and activists are open up their personal information. Why? Because previously they just wanted to close it down to protect themselves without being tracked by the government. Someone might want people to know his position so he can do things secretly. But now many are opening up this information because they see the social power. Once they’ve opened up their position, home phone, and travel plans, more people in the cloud know where they are at the same time as the authorities. He is protected even as he is tracked. This has happened over the past two years. People want to support dissidents and rights organizations, but at the same time they have to care for personal safety. If you support someone, you could get into trouble as well. But if you only send a postcard, or 140 units of information, who can touch you?
I studied neuroscience a bit, and the neurons inside your brain tend to resemble social structures, so our individuals can be social neurons. Perhaps they different from biological neurons in structure, but the theory can be similar. We can see how people create their own input and output channels to each other. We all have many different channels to connect to different people in different contexts. If we could bring such things into a technical setting we wouldn’t need to take care of each channel manually all the time–otherwise we get totally overloaded. Many people are concerned with this right now, information overload. It is already a huge burden. How can I deal with it all? How can I manage to keep up with blogs, microblogs, social networks, and so on? Technologies can try to simplify all of this. By sharing such information, more people can join and more information can be shared.
Robin Peckham:I’d like to stop you there for now and move on to something a bit more specific. The last time we spoke in Shanghai at Xindanwei last spring we talked about the ideology of Sharism, growing out of your widely circulated essay in Freesouls. I think a lot of people are now pretty clear on that. Today I want to know a little more about implementation. Last spring you were still brainstorming with collaborators Jon Philips and Christopher Adams, talking about whether this should become a software service based in the cloud, some kind of general platform, or what. Would you hook it into blogs and other formats, like the plugins that now allow trackbacks on shared content? Is that where Sharism is going now? Do you have a technical platform that you’re working on at the moment?
Isaac Mao: Exactly. We are using Sharism.org as an open platform to identify a protocol. A protocol, like the GSM protocol that makes phones talk to each other in the same language, allows two entities to shake hands and then transfer information. We are all social neurons with synapses and nodes, and if we care about those connections through something like Sharism we need a common protocol to communicate. We have now defined something called the Open Share Protocol (OSP) based on the description of value-added paths. This is about trying to give technical tools to individuals and interfaces to businesses. If something is regarded as valuable, it will be shared. The basis of the share bank system is the OSP, which is entirely based on goodwill. We want people to be more open to do more things together on the side of justice. This will help more people to understand and recognize influence: if I have more shares and have become influential, I can then recommend you as a “good” person, a shareable person. So then at that point other businesses can reward you, not only for mentioning their corporate interests but also for sharing in general.
Robin Peckham: So who signs the shares to begin with? Just corporations?
Isaac Mao: I think some of the first entities to start the share bank systems will be social enterprises, because they encourage people to share most of the time anyway. They want people to contribute and give. At the same time, they also want to record your contributions. For example, we now have billboards that announce the largest charity donors each year. But that’s not enough, because there millions of people who contribute time and social power, much more than just that leading financial portion of the long tail. We need more social contributions from everyone. This kind of sharing system can be implemented first in social enterprises, like Xindanwei, which will support the OSP. Any time you blog your blogging platform will record your shares within your own system, but if you mention Xindanwei the two systems will talk to each other through this protocol, and then the blogging system will trackback to the share bank in Xindanwei, which will add value to your share account.
Robin Peckham: Does that happen automatically, or is it reviewed personally by someone on the corporate end? What if there is a “bad share” that negatively affects the corporation?
Isaac Mao:It has to be done manually. They judge the work. But there are no good or bad shares. That’s an argument at the moment amongst the developers. I strongly suggest that an organization like Xindanwei should still be required to recognize even negative comments. The protocol supports mentioning, the fact of mentioning, because we see a lot of rubbish online today for purposes of search engine optimization. But if it leads back to a real identity, like Isaac or Robin, we won’t want to just publish rubbish because then our social value would be quickly reduced. The businesses should not care too much that they are criticized. If your blog tracks back to the Xindanwei protocol, they cannot easily refuse that publicity. But this system might evolve with further discussion.
Robin Peckham: It seems like this could be really easy to send spam, effectively. If you were to want a lot of free Coke you could write about it all the time, completely ignoring more central things like Creative Commons or Sharism itself, in your case.
Isaac Mao: This is a very interesting thing. Because you can share a lot of things, and no matter what you share one system or another will record you. But if you put out too much, your social network will dramatically reduce your value. You have to judge for yourself.
Robin Peckham:So how does your network affect the shares that you’re collecting?
Isaac Mao:The network itself is a kind of gatekeeper for the platform as a whole, which is a very distributed system. These people, these human nodes, can add more weight to the value of your sharing. For example, if the Coke share bank tries to record your sharing, it will judge your points based on the surroundings of your social graph, or how far your share gets. How large or how distant your sharing can reach generates an impact on your worth. They might recognize you, for example, for one share per instance of sharing plus one share for each person you influence with that instance. This kind of sharing might differ from one bank to another. Xindanwei, for example, might have some alterations. Perhaps one blog post might be worth one share in that bank, but when you collect one thousand shares you can get a 20% discount. You have to share more to reach this kind of incentive.
Robin Peckham: Would that unduly reward people who are already influential and well-connected for reasons that might not be related to sharing? For example, someone like you or Joi Ito might write a lot about open culture and this world is a part of what you do, so it makes sense that you have tens of thousands of followers and can accumulate that level of share value. But what about someone like pop star Justin Bieber, real estate mogul Pan Shiyi, or even the fake Sina Microblog account for Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. How do you accord value to their work? Is it all done through follower counts?
Isaac Mao: It’s about resonance. There are people who gain a million followers in one night, perhaps because they’re already famous in the real world, but then never say anything really valuable, only tweeting a word or a line every week. That makes it hard for valuable shares to accumulate on the various systems. They cannot generate dynamic share accumulation without a blog and other content tools. It could happen that, with a million followers, someone could be influential just because he has value in the traditional world that’s already recognized. But someone else with just a thousand followers could have a similar effect through the strength of sharing, content, and networks. A good message could generate a million retweets. I think this is actually more fair than before. In traditional media theory, if I have a million subscribers I’m on top of everything. But then someone else yelling on the street, and only five people can hear him and no one cares because the message is inaudible and cannot be relayed. But now we have persistent paths from one person to the next. I cannot just become disconnected. This value gives that person more power, helping common people to become collaborators more important than celebrities.
Robin Peckham: People are talking now about how Google Instant will kill SEO, because now when you attempt to search for something you can change your search in the middle of typing and never see the same keyword-based structure again. Are you worried that this kind of Sharism referral system will lead to a new form of social media optimization in which people begin to use only keywords as the content of their sharing?
Isaac Mao:We have experienced many cases of abuse throughout the two years of our intensive study of social media development. We have seen some identities that try to spam other people with hashtags, a lot of hashtags in their messages and retweets, in addition to adding a large number of other people to get attention, and so on. But after a period of time people learned to recognize that, starting to pay attention to these people not for the information but for the bad behavior. They learn to unfollow them, block them, cut them out. Twitter also pays attention to this. There are many levels of gatekeepers. I very much emphasize the social part of this equation. When more people begin to pay attention to these issues, they will move these problems out of the network, filtering them out. If anything, spam becomes less important than before and after a while these identities give up on their own, because it takes more effort to maintain it this way. If a spammer senses that it’s less viable to pay that price, he will quit. It’s an economic evaluation.
Robin Peckham: We’ve talked a bit about how that connection works for the user, rewarded through the corporate share banks. But you, of course, in addition to being a social activist interested in the new economy, are also a venture capitalist working with investment technologies, among other things. Have you found a way to monetize this platform, particularly for your development company?
Isaac Mao:The protocol is open, but I am trying to invest in new businesses to adopt the share bank system, plugging into their existing business models that for the moment only care about money. For now we have to live in a world in which a business must still stand up in the traditional world, but as much as we want the money back we also want more businesses sharing better goods and services with the public. We want people buzzing and mentioning. We see that this could happen within two to five years, with more social values for the business in which we invest today. That’s our belief. And we can get more products and services sold to the traditional world this way. Looking at consumer psychology, they believe the mentions of other people. And today we only use one part of the sharing system, one particular value–we like people to mention our business, so we reward tastemakers who like to share information. If we can get their attention, get them buzzing, we might be able to create influence over people who don’t like to share.
Robin Peckham: Does Coca-Cola or any other corporate entity have to pay you in order to use the protocol? Or is your business model is all external services?
Isaac Mao: No. I don’t want to charge anyone to use an open sharing system. Or the conceptual design work. However, we may launch some kind of Sharism University program to teach people how to design their product and build their business along these lines. We may collaborate with certain MBA schools on how to develop curricula and demo courses on how to redefine businesses, or on how to invest in sharing and social media in order to enable you to earn more from your business strategy. This kind of work could generate money from training and teaching. It’s a kind of service.
Robin Peckham:And what about user data? Are you collecting, caching, or keeping in any profitable way?
Isaac Mao: We want that data to reside on different clouds that may be required to automatically synchronize data, or work through conflicts of record inconsistency. This is a kind of social power as well. The system, from initial conception to its current state, has become more and more integral, explaining on its own those missing parts of the world. Traditionally, we do business with one track and charity with another. If an evil man makes a lot of money and then does good things after a long time, there might not be any records of his wrongdoing. That’s not fair. Naturally we try to integrate every part of human behavior: business, creativity, and information. So the world can hopefully become more just, as in our imagination. The theory of really doctrine of Sharism is becoming more and more integral to self-implementation. More and more people are joining this research, but it’s certainly not completed yet. I still have to do more to evangelize, to try to get more people to develop these technical portions in order to see through the inefficient parts of the system so we can implement and adjust it in the real world. But we have a good mission.
Robin Peckham: Do you have a launch date for the protocol yet?
Isaac Mao: We want to try to do some soft launch activities first, like the upcoming Sharism conference during the Get it Louder festival in Shanghai in late October and different training or educational events in different areas for MBAs, businesses, artists, and educators. The technical implementation could be more mature at that point. Roughly, I think maybe by the end of 2011 we might have a more official announcement about the project first, and then a publishing date for my Sharism book with a stronger collection of more supporting historical theories. This is not a theory that was developed overnight, but is rather based on a large number of educational examples. It’s not just for business. We want students and teachers to share, to become another realm of sharing. The system is not just one-directional; it is far more complex. We want to inherit the legacies of behaviorism, constructivism, and so on, helping students to understand that if they share more, they can gain more from their surroundings and build their confidence. More confidence for the children could be a beautiful thing. They could trust the world. They could trust their surroundings. That’s Sharism.