The Rise and Fall of Silk Road – Wired returns to what it does best

I remember when Wired magazine first came out in 1993. It was the same year I first installed a web browser on my computer.  I was a Valley rat in those days, job-hopping every two years or so, quite caught up in the surreal suspended reality of the boom.  And Wired was the perfect oracle for the time.

It was was entirely a hard copy magazine at first, and there was a glorious audacity to it.  From the very beginning it published in a perfect-bound form factor, instead of the single signature stapled through the center that is a far more common, and fiscally prudent — with a stapled-signature format each issue could be as few or as many pages as the combination of content and ads for that issue warranted, but perfect-bound publications need a minimum number of pages to be technically feasible.  So there was a delicious arrogance in going perfect-bound from their first issue — a proclamation of confidence that even without any initial brand recognition, they had zero worries about selling enough ad space to warrant their investment.

A cover of Wired from 1997

A cover of Wired from 1997

That arrogance was well warranted. Their journalism made for deeply enjoyable reading, and nowhere more so than their feature articles.  They were a good 50% longer than conventional wisdom says a feature article has any right being.  And more than anything else, the staff at Wired had the knack for turning a string of facts into a truly compelling narrative.  Their news items were stories in the true sense of the word; every issue was a new delight.

The bubble did not last of course, and when it burst, the fortunes of Wired largely paralleled its rise and fall. Wired managed to survive and evolve; I still subscribe, though now this takes the form of having their RSS feed on my iPhone’s news reader.  What comes across the feed is quite different from the Wired of the 90’s; they now compete with the likes of Engadget and Gizmodo as purveyors of the new and the cool, dispensing meme-sized factoids on technology, science, and nerd culture.  Even in this form they tend to do well; I find their content to be consistently more well curated than that of their competitors.  Nevertheless, in terms of enjoyment it can’t compare to the Wired of their hardcopy heyday.

Perhaps this says more about me than it does about Wired. I could just be suffering from the kind of nostalgia that seems to be an inevitable by-product of growing old.  Living and working in Silicon Valley in the midst of the bubble is certainly a suitable target for such nostalgia, though in truth I am far happier now both personally and professionally. Perhaps it was the visceral feel of leafing through the magazine, a sensation that reading things on a screen will never replicate, or perhaps it was that waiting for each month’s issue generated a sense of anticipation that doesn’t track well to the 24/7 stream of content we have come to accept as the norm now.

That being said, the Wired of old has not completely died, and that is the occasion for what is only my second blog post this year.  Every now and then, a feature article like the ones that were their standard fare in the 90’s catches my attention.  I remember the article on the Long Tail, where the term was first coined, back in 2004.  And their article on Stuxnet was another compelling narrative in their inimitable style.  In fairness to Wired, they probably still do a lot more of this kind of writing than I am aware of — they still do publish a print issue, and I am sure it creates a different impression than the one I experience on their RSS feed.  Nevertheless, this morning around 3:00am, in a fit of insomnia-fueled news reading at my African home-away-from home at the Intercontinental Nairobi, I came across a magnificent example of Wired at its best: a tale of the rise and fall of the Silk Road Marketplace.

Cover art for the Wired story, reproduced here without permission

Cover art for the Wired story, reproduced here without permission

Silk Road was a deep-web site available only via the TOR browser, Silk Road operated as an open and unabashed Amazon-like black market, primarily for drugs and guns.  I first became aware of them in mid-2011 through an article in Gawker.  I even set up my own TOR browser so I could visit the site myself and see if it was as blatantly in-your-face about drug dealing and gun running as Gawker claimed; if anything it was worse.  All payments on Silk Road were made via bitcoin, which has been another fascination of mine; from mid 2011 to the site’s inevitable downfall in 2013, the story of of Silk Road was one I followed closely.  Yet knowing most of the facts of the story in advance did not detract one iota from my enjoyment of the article; the writing was that good.  My hat is off to Joshua Bearman and Tomer Hamuka for crafting a truly compelling story. Reading it was pure delight, and their prose is something I am unabashedly envious of.  Anyway, here it is.  Enjoy!

Reputation Economy article now available online @rachelbotsman

The article by Rachel Botsman that I cited in my recent post: The Reputation Economy and the Value of Human Life, which before was only available in the UK print edition of Wired, is now available online.  You can find it here.

Go check it out: very highly recommended.

Meg Mude on social media

My friend Meg wrote a piece in her blog in which she undertakes the arduous task of looking beyond the cycle of hype in the social media market place to try and glean what has changed and what has stayed the same.

One notable quote sticks out in my brain

Businesses, which are made of humans, need to speak and to be heard, unless and until sated – they will speak

Just as contraception was a catalyst and enabling technology for women’s long-held dreams of true independence and empowerment, so social media serves as the catalyst and enabling technology for people’s long-held desire to speak and be heard.

Check out her post in detail here: Social media – substance or froth?  And tell her I say hello :-)


iece in her blog

The Reputation Economy and the Value of Human Life

This is an off topic post.  It has nothing to do with the ancient or modern history of China, or with the food of Yunnan province, and is only loosely connected to the topics of philanthropy and globalization that I usually discuss in this blog.  But it is what I’ve been thinking about for the past day, so I’ve decided to share my thoughts with you.  If you want to skip it and wait for my next post, which will tell the story of how Yunnan started to become more integrated into Imperial China after the conquest of the Kingdom of Dian, I promise not to be offended :-)

I read an article yesterday in the September edition of Wired magazine’s UK edition, entitled “Welcome to the New Reputation Economy”. In the article, author Rachel Botsman highlights the immense yet currently unmonetized value  of reputation and trustworthiness data — the sort being collected by large e-commerce firms.  Not only the juggernauts like eBay and Amazon, but also the successful niche players like Airbnb and Etsy.

Botsman then goes on to speculate on what would be possible if reputation and trustworthiness data were offered up and subscribed to in some manner of clearing house or information market — not dissimilar to FICO scores for credit ratings — and even gives a brief survey of some companies who are trying to do just that.

Finally, Botsman paints a picture of what it might be like when financial credibility and reputational credibility are mashed and used together to drive all kinds of decision making, from e-commerce to loan origination to employment.  And let it be said that Botsman does not engage in idle speculation here; she supports her views with credible examples from outfits like Stack Overflow and Movenbank.

I have been reflecting on that article for a full day now, and find myself having all kinds of reactions to it…

The professional in me is energized.  Social networking data, e-commerce data, and traditional credit scores are all available and actively used for statistical inference now.  But the inferences that can be drawn by sophisticated analysis of that correlated data will go well beyond what is currently possible, and that analysis will be worth billions of dollars.  I have always been strongly drawn by the challenge of figuring out the pragmatic details of how to take a grand vision and make it a practical reality, and it would be hard to think of a bigger vision or more challenging implementation than this.

On the other hand, the libertarian in me is horrified.  The rules governing the usage of credit reporting data are more or less fully mature, and those governing e-commerce and social network data are starting to become more clearly defined.  But by combining these data stores, everyone from marketers to intelligence agencies will be able to obtain a far more insightful look into my life, even by staying well within the well-established or currently-establishing rules for working with those data sets.

But looking beyond the immediate effects I see coming in the commercial or political spheres of the world, the philosopher in me is deeply intrigued.  Money was invented four or five millenia ago to provide a common medium of exchange in order to make trade more practical and efficient.  And since that invention, people have used money to try and put a value on human life: from the medieval Saxon weregild, to 19th century actuarial tables, to the predictive customer value analytics that shape the deal you get offered when you try to change your mobile phone to a different provider.  But though we may realize the necessity, valuing lives in dollars is something we have never been comfortable with.

In 2007 and again in 2009, I spent a good deal of my spare time interacting with people in a virtual world called SecondLife.  One of the things I learned from that experience was how desperately people are literally crying out to be more than the material confines of their lives allowed them to be.  People were — and continue to be — willing to spend frighteningly large proportions of their disposable income for the opportunity to create and interact beyond those confines, even if those creations or relationships would never be more than virtual.  This confounds rationalists, but the empirical evidence is overwhelming: people want to be measured by more than their wealth, and they are willing to sacrifice a good portion of their wealth to gain that recognition.

So let’s bring this back to Botsman’s vision of how the reputation economy will grow and evolve.  What if, within a generation or two, there is an established medium of exchange for measuring people’s contributions and/or trustworthiness across e-commerce markets, global communities, educational fora, or worthy causes?  A medium not measured in money, but in the coalesced opinion of people with similar interests?

Will it liberate people, allowing them to grow and flourish far beyond what their educational and socioeconomic realities might otherwise allow?  If so, how do we ensure that participation in this global market for reputation is as widely accessible as possible?  Or will it instead enslave people, binding them to the soul-crushing vagaries of a brand new rat race, as if the economic one weren’t bad enough?

And last of all, what other effects will it have on society?  Consider how the availability of contraception has completely altered the role of women in societies where it is accessible.  How will the commoditization of reputation and trustworthiness change our friendships, our business interactions, and our courtship rituals?

I would love to hear your thoughts…