Transcript of John Battelle's Talk (2005)

Thank you for having me. It’s an honor. Berkeley has been incredibly important to me – I attended as both an undergraduate and graduate student, and my mother, father, grandfather, and sister attended. I certainly hope the university will reserve a spot for my three children. I have also taught at Berkeley, in the school of Journalism, for the past three years. So this address marks the culmination of everything I might do at Berkeley.  Except perhaps watch Cal win the Rose Bowl of course.

I have a feeling that I was chosen to make these brief remarks because I deeply believe in the following statement: The field you’ve chosen is the most important and interesting line of inquiry to be found at this great University, and one of the most important new schools to emerge since the rise of computer science in the middle of last century.

Of course, it’s also misunderstood, miscategorized and poorly defined, but that’s to be expected. Just ten years ago, “information management” was still a fancy way of saying “librarian,” and while librarians knew better, many others had not caught on to this basic truth: the most valuable resource in our culture is knowledge, and as SIMS graduates, you are not simply becoming knowledge workers, you are becoming builders of knowledge refineries – the architects who drive how knowledge itself is created.

SIMS suffers from something of a definition problem, doesn’t it? Is it computer science, anthropology, or journalism (I had SIMS students – often the most articulate of the group – in many of my classes)? Is it library science, architecture, design? Of course, this is the same problem that plagues the Internet – what exactly is it, anyway? It seems there is no area in our culture that is not touched, changed, even swallowed by the Internet. It’s both medium and message, mass and personal, social and solitary. Like SIMS, the Internet is a study in inter-disciplinary mechanics.

Five years ago the world declared the Internet dead. Fortune 500 executives — particularly in the media and communications business — were thrilled that their monopolies were safe from what appeared to be a very real threat. They and the press declared the revolution stillborn. They wrote the Internet off as just another distribution channel and, for a while, it seemed that was a pretty safe assumption.

But a funny thing happened around the time this year’s graduating class applied to SIMS – Google began turning a profit. Yahoo, Amazon, and even Priceline shook off the snows of 2002 and began to grow again. And the collective wisdom of thousands of geeks began expressing itself in myriad and wondrous ways – in new photo tools like Flickr, in new navigation and sharing applications like delicious and Bloglines, in new social networking applications like Tribe, Linked In, and Dodgeball.

And millions of people kept using the Internet, and millions more joined, and as they used it, they changed it, making it their own, building a medium not only in their own image, but in the likeness of the culture they were becoming, a culture driven by knowledge and shaped by relationships and community. In short, while most folks weren’t paying attention over the past few years, the Web was reborn, not as a repository of information, but as a creation engine of knowledge.

Only, you all were paying attention. In 2002, when common wisdom declared the Internet had come and gone and it might be best to apply to Law school, you applied to SIMs. Why? What was it that made you come here? And what have you learned over the two or three years that might help the world become a better place? That is your challenge and your opportunity. 

My guess is that you have all gone native, if you weren’t already, native to this mediated culture of what I’ve taken to call Web 2.0. You have stewed in the rich brew of social and informational relationships that is this school and this community, and you are ready to move into the “real world” – a world which, I must say, looks increasingly like the world of graduate school – peer driven, group driven, project driven, and passion driven.

Most graduates face the world with an equal sense of optimism and trepidation – this ceremony after all marks a major transition for you all. But now comes the rest of your life, and with it uncertainty and the terrifying joy of starting all over once again.

My advice to you, insofar as I can give any, is simple: Hold onto this feeling you have right now. Rinse and repeat as often as you can. Get used to it but don’t take it for granted – it’s how the world is evolving: every few years, if you’re not leaping into a new project, a new and challenging startup, or a new challenge at a larger company, then you’re not really exercising the skills you all so clearly demonstrated with your Master's Projects. The world wants more projects like yours, and it stands ready to fund them, tweak them, embrace them, and inspire you to build them again and again.

You are, all of you, entrepreneurs, deciding what vision to follow and what path to take toward it. It’s a rather addictive feeling, and I for one hope you keep making new stuff for the rest of your sure to be very long careers.

As I said earlier, the world of media and business you are entering is very different from that of just five years ago. The Web 2.0 world is defined by new ways of understanding ourselves, of creating value in our culture, new ways or running companies and working together.

Companies in this world are run more like artist studios or graduate projects – they are lightweight – they leverage the work of thousands that came before them and potentially millions who use their products or services over the web. Craigslist, for example, is challenging the entire newspaper industry not by hiring thousands of workers and taking on publishers on their turf, but by reorganizing how people find, create and use classifieds. How they turn information into actionable knowledge. A very simple idea, but also very powerful.

These companies thrive by innovating in assembly – they find new ways to sort, organize, and present options to their customers. Information is a commodity, after all. Knowledge is king. If you can help someone refine information into knowledge – if you help them make sense of the world, you win. And it takes a special kind of person to do that – a knowledge architect – exactly what you all have chosen as your field of study, and, I hope, your careers.  

I’ve noticed that the best companies and ideas are driven by these knowledge architects who realize that in an information age, the best business to be in is that of refinery.

Let’s take a look at the vision statements for two of the most interesting and important refineries in the world today.

First is Google. Google’s mission is “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible.” Sounds pretty relevant to your work, no?

But I think it doesn’t go far enough. I am rather fond of Yahoo’s recently declared vision statement for search, one that has not been widely promoted, but I think refines Google’s idea. Here it is:

"To enable people to find, use, share, and expand all human knowledge."

Yahoo calls this "FUSE" for short (Find Use Share Expand) and it captures many key elements of what it is you all are about to do in the world: architect the products, services, and media which allow all of us to reach greater potentials, to find information, to turns that information into knowledge, to share that knowledge with others, and by doing so to expand humankind’s storehouse of knowledge, so that it might be found again.

If there’s anything nobler, I’m at a loss to describe it. And each of you stands here, today, with a chance to make this your life’s work. I say, well done, and, don’t let us down. For as Nikola Tesla, hero to Google co-founder Larry Page, once said:

Of all the frictional resistance in the world, the one that most retards human movement is ignorance, what Buddha called "the greatest evil in the world." The friction which results from ignorance can be reduced only by the spread of knowledge …. No effort could be better spent.

Congratulations, and I very much look forward to seeing what you are going to do in the years to come.

Last updated:

January 31, 2006