There’s the unmistakable smell of revolution in the air this week. And if I were Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg or Jimmy ‘Jimbo’ Wales I’d be keeping an eye out for angry French peasants dragging guillotines.
For Jobs, the rebellion is opening up across several flanks: from once-loyal partners like Adobe bitter over Apple’s decision not to support Flash to once-loyal journalists penning op-eds about heavy-handed treatment of the fourth estate and blanket censorship of adult content on the iPad. For Zuckerberg, as I wrote last week, it’s the continuing user-generated outcry over privacy. For Wales it’s an alleged mutiny by wiki editors over his decision to unilaterally delete hardcore pornography from Wikipedia.
In each case the specifics are different but the thrust is the same: having built hugely successful and popular companies in their own image, some of technology’s leading visionaries are coming under attack from the people who were once their biggest allies.
It’s worth pointing out that, for all their ferocity, the attacks are having little noticeable effect on the performance of the companies concerned: all three continue to go from strength to strength. But clearly for the founders themselves there’s a real impact. Last Tuesday, it was reported (although later denied) that Wales has voluntarily surrendered almost all of his editing privileges over Wikipedia, reducing his status to that of a junior editor. For his part, the normally unflappable Jobs has taken to protracted and snippy late night exchanges with a Valleywag writer who asked “If Dylan was [sic] 20 today, how would he feel about your company?” Zuckerberg’s suffering, meanwhile, is positively Alighierian: with leaked email exchanges and a Hollywood movie conspiring to destroy any last vestiges of privacy that the 26-year-old enjoys. I suspect all three have stopped reading their Google News alerts.
Now don’t get me wrong, I like a bit of schadenfreude as much as the next failure, but as I listen to the growing chorus of disapproval at some of technology’s most iconic founders I can’t help but feel uneasy.
No matter what Danah – sorry – danah Boyd – sorry – boyd – might say, Facebook isn’t a public utility, and nor should it be treated as such. (The test by the way for if X is a utility: if the sentence ‘Millions of children in Africa have no access to x’ doesn’t sound like a headline from the Onion. Try it with electricity, water and Facebook. See?) No matter what some bloggers might think about the First Amendment implications of banning porn, Steve Jobs is not an arm of the US government. Likewise Jimmy Wales’ democratic powers are safely confined to the space between the words Aardvark and Zyxt – is it really a pseudo-constitutional scandal for him to delete a bit of porn?
The problem here is one of perspective. We hardcore internet users might do well to realise that, just because we spend our days trawling TechCrunch and TechMeme and Hacker News doesn’t mean that the wider world shares our belief that privacy settings for photos we’ve chosen to post online, Flash on the iPad or our God-given right to see erections on Wikipedia are the most important issues in the world today. And why should they? By and large, Jobs, Zuckerberg and Wales are going about their lawful business, providing fun digital toys that we could easily survive without, but choose not to.
The second problem is one of entitlement. Just because the founders of web and technology companies are inherently more accessible to us than other CEOs (see Jobs replying to emails or Jimmy Wales’ and Mark Zuckerberg’s frequent conference appearances) doesn’t mean that they are any more answerable to us. The respective visions of Jobs, Zuck and Wales have created companies that we gladly use every day in our millions. What right do we have to tell them that their vision is suddenly wrong, just because it happens to clash with our own?
As Mike Arrington wrote on Wednesday in relation to Digg, it’s simply not the obligation of an entrepreneur to make decisions based on what the crowd demands. In fact it’s ludicrous to think that a business which has attracted millions of fans thanks to a founder’s singular vision should suddenly start taking their orders from those fans. The whole point of a visionary is that they can see things that others can’t; if thousands of users think they know what path a visionary should take then that path is inherently the wrong one.
I may disagree with Steve Jobs’ approach to pornography on the iPad (I do), or with Zuckerberg’s high-handed approach to privacy (I do) or with Jimmy Wales’ spontaneous clean-up operation to avoid bad press (I don’t, actually) but provided they remain within the law, I will shrug my shoulders to the death in defence of their right to do what they think best.
If they continue to make the right calls, their companies will continue to grow, and if they make the wrong ones, then they will fail. Until there’s any meaningful sign of the latter happening to Apple, Wikipedia or Facebook we – the journalists, the bloggers, the Twitterers and the shrill activists – should probably put away our guillotines and consider that maybe, just maybe, when it comes to their businesses, these visionaries know what they’re doing.