Q&A: Sean Bonner, entrepreneur, icon of Internet subculture

Getting off Facebook is no small feat for an Internet junkie like Sean Bonner. He gives SmartPlanet his take on the dangers of third party web services.
Written by Sonya James, Contributor

This is the first installment in a two-part interview with Sean Bonner.

Sean Bonner likes to avoid classification. The homepage of his website reads: It's rather difficult to explain what Sean Bonner does exactly. It's kind of a secret in fact. A mystery actually. To be honest, we don't like to talk about it much.

Luckily for us, Bonner made an exception. And while I like a good secret as much as the next person, let me just say, Bonner is a Los Angeles-based … entrepreneur who knows a lot about the web.

He recently launched a clothing line; co-founded the LA hacker collective Crash Space; designed this Die Antwoord album; helped start the art gallery sixspace; and was a Senior Designer at Playboy.com and Creative Director for Victory Records. Inhale.

He is also the co-founder and global director of Safecast, a pretty revolutionary organization pioneering citizen science that is the subject of Part 2 of this two-part Q&A, to be published in two weeks.

A year ago this month, Bonner's social life took a dramatic turn. He very publicly quit using Facebook. Here is an excerpt from our conversation about today's strikingly tumultuous moment in the history of the web.

The director of the MIT Media Lab Joi Ito has said you are “one of the celebrated icons of the modern Internet subculture." That your "mere presence is attracting huge crowds of fans." Paint me a picture of what's happening. Why are people so attracted to what you're doing?

I think it’s a very interesting and exiting time for us -– especially those of us who have been involved in the web for almost 20 years. I was spending a huge amount of time on the web in the early 1990s (when there were about 100 other people on it). To see where it’s gone from then to now is incredibly exciting.

A shift is happening from being offline, then online, to no longer having to make the distinction. The web is so integrated into your life that you never think, “Am I online or offline right now?”

That’s a big difference from just a few years ago when people were not connected for huge chunks of the day. This shift, the blur from offline to online, is very exciting. That’s when the web starts to really make sense for people. So for those of us who’ve been talking about the web for a long time, now there are just more people who understand what we’re talking about.

People have a lot of different opinions about what the web could have been, should have been, or should be now. You came from a DIY ethos. Where do you stand now?

I don’t think there’s one thing everyone agrees upon. Nor should there be, that would be incredibly boring. But many of us are discussing, “What is the web? What could it have been? Where could it still go?" And when it comes to your personal relationship to the web, "Do you have a corner of it that’s yours? Or are you just a visitor leaving little pieces of yourself on other sites?"

All lot of this is theoretical until you actually see millions and millions of people using a service, and a company shutting it down. When you see lawsuits and watch this stuff in play, it becomes a lot more real.

What are some example of significant moments like this?

When you watch cycles of how much people use and rely on one service, you see patterns happen again and again. You see motives become clear. I generally default to not relying on a third party service for whatever it is I'm doing.

Regardless of how robust that service might be, it’s still something outside of your control. Someone else hosts your email. Someone else hosts your website. Someone else hosts your content -- things you care about that you've gone through the trouble of posting online. If the final step of that relies on someone else’s business, then you’re always on shaky ground -- especially if you’re getting that for free and they are trying to figure out how to make money in another way. At some point they could decide that it’s not a profitable situation and just shut it off.

There’s the issue of shareability and connectivity between people though.

Yes exactly. Just yesterday [March 12th, 2013] Google announced that they’re shutting down Reader. You know, the RSS reader application that they’ve been running. And that’s a very interesting shift because quite a few years ago there was a huge market for RSS readers. An RSS feed basically allows you to publish whatever it is you're creating for the web in a really simple format. That was basically the sharing format that everybody used. The web itself was the sharing mechanism. You didn’t have to click a button that says "share." Simply by publishing online using RSS, your content went to anybody who was interested in it.

So when Google put a lot of effort behind Reader, it basically killed the market for desktop and other web-based RSS clients. There was no way people could compete with Google, especially because a lot of those software platforms were paid. Google came in, offered the service for free, and then basically killed the other services. They took over the entire market and now they’re walking away from it. The market is gone. So now this entire structure that was created specifically for that sharing function is suddenly in a rough situation, simply because one company decided to stop supporting it.

Let’s talk about Facebook and some of the other social networking sites out there. You publicly quit using Facebook a year ago, writing "Usage is implied consent. Usage is passive support.  I don’t consent to this and I can’t support it. Facebook is bad for the web, and it’s bad for people." Why?

There were a lot of things going on at that time -- Facebook’s support of bills that gave the government rights to access information and prevented people from accessing that same information, for one.

When there are huge rallies against these bills by people using a service that supports [these bills], it sort of negates that protest. If you’re saying, "This is a bad bill, I don’t support it," but you're saying it on a service from a company financially supporting the bill, it doesn’t matter what you’re saying, you’re still supporting that bill.

So you’ve been off Facebook for a year. What have you missed? What has the experience revealed to you?

I haven’t really missed anything. One of my big complaints at the time was that Facebook was pushing use of Facebook only. They were making it really hard to get off the site. They were also pushing Facebook connect as logins. They were tracking all of your activity online and selling that information to people. They were pulling content from other sites, so if you clicked on a link to an article, you wouldn't have to leave Facebook. All of this monitoring, et cetera, was very sketchy.

Not having to worry about this stuff anymore has been very exciting. There have only been three websites –- brand new sites that just launched –- that I haven’t been able to use because the only way was through a Facebook login. Most people realized that having one sign-in option completely dependent on a third party isn’t a fantastic idea. That was the biggest concern I had when I quit.

I had become so disillusioned with what was going on at Facebook that my biggest concern was how it was going to impact what I was doing on the rest of the web.

You know if we take several steps back and look at the whole picture, there is no one service that exists forever.

There are waves of popular services. Things come and go. Certainly as more people are online, whatever is popular now is more popular than what was popular five years ago. I don’t think Facebook is the end-all be-all social network. It is certainly popular right now, but it won’t be forever. There will be something else that will be even more popular than Facebook. And there will be something that is even more popular than that.

It's important to think about because, for people whose entire online life is Facebook, at some point they are not going to have access to that stuff. If they want to go to another network, they are not going to be able to import all of their relationships, friends and content. Facebook is not the end of the web.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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