Maciej Ceglowski, Pinboard

image of Maciej Ceglowski from podcast recording
Reimagining the Internet
Reimagining the Internet
Maciej Ceglowski, Pinboard
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Maciej Ceglowski is not just the founder of one of the indie web’s success stories — the modest yet long-running subscription bookmarking service Pinboard — but a prolific commentator on the world the Internet is helping to create. This week, we’re thrilled to chat founder Maciej Ceglowski about the stakes, both online and offline, that inform how people use the Internet today.

While Maciej does most his writing on Twitter these days, he used to write prolifically on his blog Idle Words.

Transcript

Ethan Zuckerman:

Hey, everybody. Welcome back to Re-imagining the Internet. My name’s Ethan Zuckerman. I am thrilled today to have Maciej Ceglowski, one of my really favorite internet thinkers and someone I’ve read and admired for a long time. I teach Maciej’s work every semester that I’m in the classroom. I always have a hard time explaining who he is. I usually introduce him as a standup philosopher, a travel writer, a software entrepreneur, but I think most critically you’re a critical thinker and a debunker of the way many people think of the internet and how it works and someone who’s actually looking to reimagine and reinvent the internet as it is. Maciej, let me start with Pinboard. What is Pinboard and why is Pinboard the way it is?

Maciej Ceglowski:

Pinboard is a business performance art, I think is the most honest way to explain it. As far as a thing, it is a B look marketing website, which depending on how old you are, that makes a lot of sense to you, or not so much sense to you. Back in the very early days of the web, a need that people had was to keep track of the stuff that they found. They would forget it and there were no good search engines for it. My good friend, Joshua Shackter wrote something called Delicious. It was one of those projects that got everybody’s… A Velvet Underground thing where everybody who came across had wrote their own take on it.

It was something I was terribly dismissive of at the time, but many years later when Yahoo had bought it and had started redesigning it, I asked Joshua’s moral permission to clone the thing that it used to be. At that time I was living in Romania because my girlfriend was in the Peace Corps and I was in a precarious situation. I was hoping just to make a little bit of side income from it. Over time, it turned out to be a much better decision than I knew. It’s been my full-time job now for 12 years. I charge people, I don’t even remember what, something like 20 bucks a year and I keep track of their data.

It gives me a platform to stand on and shake my fists at the tech economy while not being, no offense, an academic. The fake story about Pinboard is that it’s an example that you can have a small one person business that’s sustainable and successful, but really if I wasn’t funny and if I couldn’t tweet, I don’t think I could make this work the way it works. It’s a little bit of a sham that this is a sustainable thing that everybody can do. It’s taken me a bunch of years to come to peace with the fact that there’s not really a room for these one person businesses. They don’t seem to do very well over the long run, which is a great shame.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I’ve been paying for it for quite some time. I think when I initially signed up for it, the annual… First of all, I think it was initially a one time fee. I think you recently asked permission to make it an annual fee. I also think it iterated in cost. I think I got on at something like $13, but with each person who signed on it became a penny more expensive. Talk a little bit about these business models. What is it about tweeting and being funny that has actually turned this into a viable project?

Maciej Ceglowski:

I’ll start with the original business model. At the time, it was 2009. It was absolutely shocking to charge for a service because everything was free. There were a number of reasons for this. Probably one of the biggest was how hard it was to set up a payment gateway and how reluctant people were to type in their credit card stuff and so forth into the web. There was a lot of skepticism about even charging for a bookmarking site. Joshua gave me that great idea of actually having a incremental counter on the price. No matter where you got in, you were getting a better deal than the next sucker. I think it was 40 people meant one penny at one point or something like that. That gimmick actually gave me a lot of publicity at the time.

It also created a sense in people, which I hadn’t realized was missing that the project might have legs and be sustainable because I was actually getting paid for it. There had been a site called Magnolia that had crashed and taken these bookmarks away. There was this real sense that you got in on the ground floor of someone’s hobby project, and then it disappeared or got bought or went somewhere else and you were stuck. I was very pleasantly surprised that people responded so positively to the idea of charging money, as long as it was clear that money was being used to make this a long term venture.

Ethan Zuckerman:

One of the things that was so interesting about Delicious… You and I are of the same internet generation. We were getting involved in the late 1990s, the early 2000s. Social media was merely a glimmer in people’s eyes, but bookmarking was, of course, an early form of social media. Reading your bookmarks, reading Joshua’s, reading others was actually a fascinating form of internet discovery. It also meant that these spaces were desperately personal and having Delicious get bought by Yahoo and then languish felt really hurtful. It felt really like something that I personally put a lot of time and effort into suddenly out of my control. Of course that is in fact what everyone is doing with Twitter, with Facebook, so on and so forth. Twitter in theory could shutter its doors tomorrow and your huge corpus of quips would be lost to the future because it’s not even being archived at the library of Congress anymore. Why are we so willing to put up with this and has Pinboard made the argument that we shouldn’t

Maciej Ceglowski:

First off, I think the situation has really changed because of the oligopoly in having these really big websites take over. Google’s an exception because they have no hesitation about taking an entire project down after a couple of years. They rightfully get criticized for it, but Facebook it’s pretty permanent and Twitter as well. That sense that we had maybe 10 years ago of, why should I bother contributing to this place or this community… Even Reddit is pretty permanent now. I think that’s abated a little bit. People don’t have as recent an experience of getting badly burned by this dynamic, which is, I think… Unfortunately it promotes this kind of monopoly internet and this boring internet that we have now, but it was a real problem at the time.

I always felt caught between two fires because in my intellectual approach to the web, I was very for things being ephemeral and not having this inhuman permanent memory. But I also run an archiving site, which is about the flip side of that, which is that things that have value to you shouldn’t be unilaterally taken down. Even on Twitter, we saw when they finally decided to ban Donald Trump. They didn’t just ban him. They took down retroactively everything he had said, which might not be a great loss, but the things that were in all of those threads, which have historical value, which have cultural value and which people had put time into contributing. They were all taken down too with no recourse. That feeling of no recourse, I’m a chump, I got played, I was used to help someone sell a company… That was a really bitter pill in our internet era. Now it’s gone because everything is monopolized.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Everything is now monopolized. Instead of one person and fragility, which seemed to be in some ways, what Pinboard was a reaction to… Now, instead we have implacable public companies with no ability to speak to them and no way to have discourse, except through lines of flax. You have very consciously chosen not to go down the economic path that most of these services exist on, which is basically the path of surveillant advertising. I know from both reading and teaching your work, that you’re both very skeptical of surveillant advertising and its value, and also deeply worried about it as a business model. Can I get you to explore maybe this question of why advertising as we do it on the monopoly web right now is so problematic? Is it more problematic because it’s bad and bad for us, or is it more problematic because it’s a shell game in investor story time?

Maciej Ceglowski:

It’s a really deep question. I circle around it, trying to figure out where to poke it with a stick to get a good howl out of it. One thing that I really worry about is the relationship between a surveillant society in the state. I think that in the United States, at least, that people see it fairly simplistically as the Edward Snowden model, where you have intelligence agencies that have enormous technical capacity to spy on citizens. They have to be reigned in and kept in check or we get a bad seventies movie out of it. I think the model that I’m very scared of is the Russia and LiveJournal model, where you have things that are kept forever in perpetuity, data that moves into unexpected hands and political situations that change in ways that could never have been predicted at the time that you created the things that are going to bite you later.

I think that it ties into this idea of a permanent record being very inhuman. In pre-internet societies, you made maybe three or four irrevocable decisions in your life. It depends on how many kids you had, but you got married and maybe you chose a profession. These were very distinct moments. In the internet era, you do 10 of these before breakfast because you know that everything do is going to get tracked. Then it just stays tracked by default. I think that it’s where living in that kind of a world meets the political system and the political problems that we’re having across the Western democracies now, let alone in other countries. I really worry about where things are headed and what that means for people living and growing up, especially in those circumstances.

Ethan Zuckerman:

In an essay of yours that… I guess it’s a talk more than an essay, but it’s your talk at beyond tellerrand some years ago. As I said, I teach it every semester because I find it such a useful, critical stand on this question of big data and what the value really is here. You make an analogy to your family leaving Poland and Poland and East Germany and a number of other Soviet block nations trying to deal with the legacy of a surveillance society. Can I get you to talk a little bit about how those countries have navigated these records that in some cases are now 60 plus years old, 70, 80 years old, but still potentially, actually very toxic and very worrisome and a real problem for contemporary governments?

Maciej Ceglowski:

Yeah, in the Polish context, it was a fascinating moment after the fall of communism, where the fact that the secret police had kept files on so many people became a political weapon in which the existence of those files was used to smear people’s reputations. It was imputed that you had been a snitch or you had spied on your neighbors. I believe the same thing happened in East Germany, but reunification reigned in the worst of the political exploitation of that stuff. There were a lot of political fights in Poland over who actually had control of these archives and whether anybody would ever go into them or not. It became a bludgeon that really damaged people who had Sterling character and really had shown guts and bravery under communism, under martial law, who then became [inaudible 00:12:34] as the foremost among them.

There’s a lot of problems with him, but he was a brave guy and he was not a communist stooge. Yet that is where things were taken. What interested me about this was it was the existence of these dossiers and not so much their contents that was the problem. Nobody also knew how to dispose of them. Even the people who wanted to get rid of them weren’t clear on how you would do this. The Romanians solved us by just burning them in a panic before they could be examined. This is just a small taste of the problem that we have now, which is that we have dossiers on absolutely everybody. It’s not just government dossiers. It’s everybody’s lives, the mundane details of where you are, your heartbeat, all these things that we collect.

We also have no capacity to secure this over the long term. Software is not capable of doing that. We have no plan for how to mitigate this. One of the paradoxes that I’m fascinated by is the fact that Facebook and Google are fairly ethical companies and they’re competent. If they were like Rupert Murdoch run or if they were a complete disaster, we might have an easier time addressing some of these problems. But for now it’s been very much like don’t worry, trust us. There’s a Robert McNamara mood of we’re best of the best and we are just going to put pure brain power on the problem and solve it in perpetuity. I think it’s a very dangerous situation.

Ethan Zuckerman:

We do have an interesting moment on this. It often takes us a while to edit these shows. This may be old news by the time it comes out, but it appears that yesterday or early today, Twitch was hacked and had the entirety of its code base, including unreleased code, all the information about users, all the revenue information. We now know that the top Twitch streamers made $8 million a year from their account. We also know how many people who claim to be making money on Twitch are not in fact making money on Twitch. Maybe Amazon has demonstrated to us that we are not in fact the best of the best.

You have made the analogy that all these companies seem to feel that data is oil in the sense that it is this untapped resource that can be refined and used for endless riches. You helpfully point out that oil is also a nasty, sticky, toxic substance that ruins everything it touches. If you don’t find a way to contain it… Why is that so hard for people to get their heads around? Why are people so convinced that there’s nothing better that we could do than to collect as much data as possible on people?

Maciej Ceglowski:

When you ask about people, are you referring to the people who run and design services, the people who choose to use them, or what group are we talking about?

Ethan Zuckerman:

It feels like a bargain that we’ve all committed ourselves to. This is the Shoshana Zuboff critique that without consumers consciously accepting it, this bargain in which we’re perpetually under surveillance in exchange for free stuff, is simply the world that we live in. One of the things that I find so helpful in your work is that you raise these tone questions of, is this a world that we should accept? Second of all, is this actually valuable? Does Facebook think all the data that it’s hoovering up is valuable? Do the VCs believe this? do the new startups doing this, believe this? If they do, are you not an idiot for monitoring your users on Pinboard and up upgrading your house and your undisclosed location?

Maciej Ceglowski:

I think thinking of privacy as a public good and a public health issue, sort of like the environment, is a good starting point for this question. When factories start going up around you and start polluting, and your river turns to sludge and your air is hard to breathe, at no point does anybody come to your door and ask you, are you cool with this? It just happened because there’s no regulation or law around it. There’s no custom around it. This is a new thing in the world and so it will just do whatever it pleases until enough people collectively in some way, whether it’s through customs, whether tribe gets angry, whether it’s through laws passed in a democratic government, puts boundaries on it.

I think that’s what happened with this surveillance economy. It turned out that you could make a lot of money by collecting data and running ads against it. You have some familiarity with that. There was absolutely no regulation around it. The services that people gave away for free as a result were super cool. Google Maps is an amazing thing if you remember the pre-Google maps world, even if you just remember the Yahoo Maps world. This bargain in some ways has been very beneficial for people. The problem that I address in that… I like the nuclear waste metaphor even more than the oil one, because it has that long half life. These are liabilities that we face in the future.

The existence of this data is dangerous. The existence of the encroachment of it more and more into our daily lives, the normalization of it, things like Apple introducing facial recognition in handheld devices. These are all things that create a threat. When I look at the situation in Hong Kong, for example, I think about this over and over. We have a city where maybe half the population participated in lawful protest. They are all on record and they are being squeezed more and more with time. This is hanging over the heads of an entire generation of young people that they’re tracked and they were tracked. This information’s accessible and how it’s going to be used against them is solely up to their adversary. I think that this is not a unique situation, and I think that we need to think it through before it happens to us.

Ethan Zuckerman:

It’s interesting. I want to come back to Hong Kong cause you’ve written quite movingly about it on Idle Words and in some other places. You’ve raised this question of how brave Hong Kongers have been in participating in these protests and, in a certain extent, a comparison with Americans who’ve been on the one hand, perhaps more engaged in protests around George Floyd’s murder than around other instances of racial injustice. But still not at the level of sort of society reshaping protests that we’ve seen in Hong Kong. That’s really an observation of surveillance in public life. Do you think we’re fearing some sort of future where what we read and what we watch and what we pay attention to gets weaponized going forward? Is that what’s next in China? Is that what we should be worried about when we binge watch Squid Game on Netflix?

Maciej Ceglowski:

I think the question of China and its behavior is a separate thing. When I think about the United States, the one real lesson from Hong Kong is how quickly things slip away. You have a place that went from being at the top of the press freedom index to now moving rapidly towards the bottom. I think the way that ratchet effect worked and how quickly it was made a reality is the lesson that we should take as a country.

The thing I fear most is not Trump comes back to power and now he’s competent and now he’s going to look up your browser history. I think I’m afraid of things like self censorship. I’m afraid of the impact of growing up with your 14 year old and 15 year old thoughts kept in perpetuity in a public location, growing up in a situation where 80,000 people might pay attention to something you said. I think that’s a very, I come back to this word, inhuman. It’s a scary inhuman feeling. We’re supposed to be given a pass in our younger years. We’re supposed to not have to get up on the public stage or be public figures unless we, in some way, choose that life. All that has been taken away. I think that really it’s that effect more than the Jack booted thugs, that I worry about the long term harms of it.

Ethan Zuckerman:

There’s this prediction that’s been out there for 10 or more years that young people won’t be able to go out in public life because we’ll go out and find their histories from their MySpace pages and embarrassing things that they said when they were 14 or 15. Then we elected Donald Trump for whom there’s an infinite amount of embarrassing and incriminating material. It makes me wonder if one of the possible outcomes of this is that maybe we give everyone a pass and maybe in ways that actually aren’t very helpful, that maybe being implicated in the notion that we’re all famous now and that we’re all on the record all the time, we’re more forgiving of these things. Maybe I’m building a false equality there, but it does feel like I remember those projections from 10 or more years ago that our histories were going to catch up and ruin our futures. Do you see that happening yet?

Maciej Ceglowski:

I think of it more as life has just become so performative. There are fewer contexts where you are just in a small circle and you’re living the way we lived most of our species existence, which is within a group of people that you know and interact with over time. More of it is a performative thing where you are in public view, whether at the moment or potentially later, and adjusting your behavior to that, to that gaze. I think that these things tie into each other. The encroachment on your freedom to be who you are by having to project a persona from earliest childhood… I think that’s more of an issue than the fact that you’re going to get called out for something you did 20 years ago, even though that also happens.

I think Donald Trump showed that you can just brazen your way through this. I actually think that was a valuable lesson. The political culture he broke was fairly stultifying in that respect. John Edwards is somewhere at home combining his beautiful hair and wishing that he’d had the guts to brazen it through the [crosstalk 00:23:32]

Ethan Zuckerman:

To tell us what he really thought. Maybe the answer is that the kids are all right, and that frankly, they’ve been performing since they were 10. I certainly know that’s the case with my kid, who’s almost 12 and whose main form of cultural expression is the YouTube video. He’s very conscious of himself as a performer from an early age. You are suggesting that form of performance and putting yourself out there, maybe what we’re actually doing is raising a generation child stars who, generally speaking, have not turned out especially well.

The place I really want to drill down on with you is around what I’m going to call avoiding crappy futures. You and I have both been thinking about this space for a very long time. You were trying to solve a problem some years ago, which was services dying, losing your data, selling it off to the highest bidder. You imagined a better future, which was a future in which a software developer got paid for their work, maintained the system for a long period of time. If you did disappear and go off the grid, we could pull our data off of it. That’s in the grand scheme of things, I think a fairly lovely future.

We have now a moment where people are imagining futures that I’m not always very comfortable with. There’s certainly a lot of people imagining futures in which a permanent record on an incredibly environmentally expensive blockchain somehow solves our futures. There’s maybe even a stranger future in which all of us create by making nonfungible digital tokens and passing them back and forth. How do we both imagine and build better futures than we have now? Can we do it by being appropriately critical of some of these naive or frankly, in some cases, grifter futures?

Maciej Ceglowski:

Yeah. I’ve been circling around this problem a lot. Where cryptocurrency is right now is in a very strange place. The heart of it is I think we all agree a scam, in the most generous interpretation perpetrated by people who are true believers in a completely alternate and nuts vision of economic interaction, but also just a lot of people who are in it because it’s a lottery ticket that keeps winning. Around it is an actual culture of people who for their own reasons have come to it as a place that offers some kind of hope and also offers what we had in the late nineties, which was this sense of great possibility with something that we knew was coming and we could help shape.

The difference is you and I don’t feel that a cryptocurrency future is coming, or at least we hope it’s not coming. But the culture around that is very real and very vibrant and is missing completely from the web, which I think is a big indictment of what’s happened, where there’s just no room for that fun early Linux, open source sort of feeling or that pioneering feeling of building something that’s never existed before and that you’re going to change the world with whether or not it materializes.

I think that a lot of this has its roots in 2008 and the fact that we had this enormous crisis that no one ever took responsibility for and just cut off a lot of people’s futures for the best part of a decade, and we’re supposed to just accept. I think there’s no coincidence that that’s when Bitcoin was born and I think that this implicit critique of a society that is becoming less fair, where the chances of moving upwards are decreasing, where just a lot of people’s existence is miserable, where it should be great. That is an emotional driver of, I think, a lot of the stuff in this space.

Also the feeling, which is a very toxic feeling, as a tech person, you’ve also experienced this, of people getting rich around you, getting crazy rich and you missed out. I think that that is also… There’s this hope driven crypto culture, and there’s this fear of missing out crypto culture. Then there’s also the purely criminal one. They’re a toxic blend and I think that they’ve been underestimated, including very much by me. I’m trying to figure out new ways to think about this that are more generative.

Ethan Zuckerman:

First of all, I actually think it’s a very generous read. I think you’ve actually gotten me to look on the crypto space with more sympathy than I pursued it for a while, which is that notion of people pursuing that hopeful, anything is possible future. I remember the moment when I saw a URL painted on the side of an airplane. That was just a really strange moment. It was this moment of this world that I know a lot about and care a lot about has actually crossed over into the real world. I do see that a lot with the cryptocurrency folk. I think you just described it as a really interesting blend, which is this combination of true believers who are interested in the space because they genuinely see an interesting future, a group of people who are turning to the space out of economic despair and a set of people who are simply criming.

Then I think this added dynamic, particularly in the NFT space, which is just so fascinating where something as simple as a PNG is suddenly worth $300,000. You can look at this and say, I knew about crypto punks. I could have bought a crypto punk. How did I somehow miss out on all of this? Is there a way to separate those encouraging and positive futures from the darker side of it? Is there a way in which someone like you who’s really been quite successful in figuring out how to grab onto an alternative possible future and follow it to its logical end. Do you feel an obligation, do you feel an opportunity to come into this space and cultivate some of those good futures at the expense of some of the less good ones?

Maciej Ceglowski:

I think at the core of this crypto mindset is a very dark thought, which is this whole idea of completely trustless decentralized money or any sort of interaction, which again, is really, really inhuman. Everything in our lives runs on having some group of people and some level of trust, even if it’s a minuscule one. This is a very alien and alienating worldview that’s baked into everything that’s built on these technologies. When I say hope, I say that hope is cut with a lot of despair.

My problem in coming in and saying, we should be doing this instead, is that I also share a lot of the despair. I’m a much less hopeful person than I was a few years ago. I don’t have an honest answer for people saying, where do we take this that is a good direction? I think we’re stuck in some sense. I’m also a middle aged guy whose very nature cries out to say that what the kids are doing is garbage and nothing like what we did when we were their age. Fighting this instinct while trying to analyze this problem is… I find it quite difficult.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Yeah. I force myself to look in the mirror and thoughtfully stroke my gray beard every time I try to be too critical of the NFT or the crypto guys, just to put myself in my place.

Maciej Ceglowski:

One concern I have around that though is that there’s this real academicization of the internet. Again, I’m sorry, we’re opposite sides here. It’s been declawed in a way. I know people very well who were all about anti censorship and freedom who are now all about content moderation and responsible use and trying to turn everything into college. I think that, again, we come back to the NFT and crypto thing where it’s kind of like… It’s the leather jacket and the fifties duck bill hair of the internet. It’s like, I’m not going to listen to your rules, man. Searching for a way, especially for non-American people and especially for people in Africa where there’s just so much genuine innovation around it… Now I’m encroaching on your expertise.

Maciej Ceglowski:

As far as payments go, as far as cell networks, as far as the role of that in people’s lives, there’s so much innovation and there’s no pathway to take that and not get scammed and exploited and ripped off. This also comes back to an early nineties ideal, which is that you can get an education anywhere now. You have the access to this stuff, so how do people who were previously denied that then get a pathway from that education to something that they can build that gives back the world? That’s the problem that urgently needs solving, but we can’t really solve it from an American tech perspective without falling into the same trap as if Facebooks and Googles, where you’re just trying to engineer a sterile American flavored future for the world.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Two things I have to say that I really love out of this conversation. The first is that I hear you articulating a need from cosmopolitanism that makes me wish that I didn’t have mistrust over my shoulder, my earlier rewire arguing for learning from a more global net. The second thing is I do think we figured out the NFT drop that we need to do together, which is a series of greasers who are completely identical except for a different pack of cigarettes rolled up in their sleeve. They’ll all be slightly different. We drop them and very soon. I’m sure we’ll be rolling in it. Maciej, it’s been such a pleasure. I’m really glad we got this chance to talk on this and that and every different thing. We’re going to have to have you back to think about this at some point soon.

Maciej Ceglowski:

Thank you so much for having, Ethan, and thank you for this wonderful conversation.