Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

How do you write a biography about collaboration?

A friend recently posted a video on Facebook, a 1997 news story from ABC’s Nightline about Tripod, the social media company I helped build in Williamstown MA from 1994-1999. The video sparked a wave of reactions in me: nostalgia for those past days, pride in the accomplishments of the friends I’ve kept up with, regret for losing touch with others, and bafflement that I would choose to wear flannel and overalls to show off our company to the world. (Perhaps my favorite moment in watching the video was discovering that we’d been interviewed by Deborah Amos, NPR’s Middle East reporter, who has subsequently become a respected friend.)

I’m not proud of all of the emotions that I experienced traveling 17 years into the past. Seeing Bo Peabody, our co-founder and CEO, skateboard into the office and declare that we sold “eyeballs” gave me a wash of anger, envy and frustration that characterized much of my time at the company. Bo playing CEO – something he did splendidly – was often intolerable to me when I was in my twenties, and surprisingly uncomfortable for me to watch in my forties.

Like many companies, Tripod was run by a team of executives who worked closely together – Tripod was somewhat pioneering in that our executives were mostly in their mid-twenties, often working our first serious jobs. (I realize that all promising tech companies now recruit VPs from middle school and issue them standard-order Zuckerberg hoodies in kids sizes, but this was still pretty radical in 1997.) Our company succeeded to the extent it did (never profitable, but sold at a good price for our investors, and still survives as a service almost twenty years later) because we had a small, close-knit team of smart people with complementary skills, (One of those people now directs product design at Facebook. Another became chief marketing officer for Adap.tv and Rubicon, two pioneers in online advertising.)

I saw the team, its strengths and weaknesses as core to Tripod’s success. But whenever a journalist did a news story, it became the story of Bo, the founder, the solitary entrepreneurial genius who’d built our company.

I hated this. I thought it misrepresented our company, disrespected not only the contributions of the management team but the work done by the 60 smart people who built our products and served our users. Hearing me rant about this one too many times, Kara Berklich, our head of marketing pulled me aside and explained that the visionary CEO was a necessary social construct. With Bo as the single protagonist of our corporate story, we were far more marketable than a complex story with half a dozen key figures and a cast of thousands. When you’re selling a news story, it’s easier to pitch House than Game of Thrones.

Bo, to his great credit, understood that it was his job to play this role and was good about separating the character and the reality – his reflections on Tripod, Lucky or Smart?, make clear that Bo knew he was lucky enough to assemble a smart team and smart enough to let the team make the important decisions. Having taken on that visible visionary role at nonprofit organizations, I also now understand how often that job sucks, how being the avatar for a vast project forces you to try and manifest qualities that the company has and which you, personally, lack.

I was thinking of this ancient history last week as I worked my way through Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. (In defense of my choice of beach reading – I read several better books on paper that week. But Audible’s selections are a lot more limited, and I wanted something to “read” as I walked on the beach.) Isaacson’s biography, written with Jobs’s cooperation and hundreds of interviews with Jobs, his family, friends and colleagues, is an enjoyable and uncomfortable read. I found it enjoyable because it’s another personal time machine of sorts – reading it, I remember my first time using Apple products, from the venerable Apple II through the laptops and phones I use today. It’s uncomfortable because it becomes increasingly clear that Steve Jobs was an angry, manipulative asshole who slashed and burned his way through the lives of most people he encountered.

Sue Halpern reviewed Isaacson’s book for NYRB and does a better job than I could ever hope to, raising uncomfortable questions about Jobs’s attempts to be both corporate and counterculture, reminding us that Apple’s “Designed in California” is made possible by being “Assembled in China” under often troubling circumstances. My favorite of her observations is that Isaacson manages both to canonize Jobs while revealing his most damning flaws: “.. it is possible to write a hagiography even while exposing the worst in a person.” Jobs saw himself as an artist, Isaacson reminds us, and artistic geniuses are often too strange and pure to peacefully coexist with us lesser mortals.

When Jobs chose Isaacson to write his biography, it’s fair to assume he was aware of the author’s previous subjects: Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Henry Kissinger. The first two are routinely cited as exemplars of genius, and Kissinger may have his own dark claims to genius. It’s not hard to read Jobs’s selection of Isaacson as a way of inserting himself into the Pantheon.

Isaacson is happy to assist. The book was rushed into print when Jobs died, and Isaacson wrote a coda, excerpted in the New York Times, to cover Jobs’s death, funeral and legacy. In the New York Times excerpt, Isaacson makes clear that he saw Jobs as a genius, even if he wasn’t always conventionally smart. It was Jobs’s ingenuity and creativity, his ability to see a brilliant technical idea and turn it into something that consumers wanted that characterized his genius, Isaacson argues. One of the major themes of the book is the intersection of the sciences and the humanities – Jobs saw himself as standing at that crossroads, using his acutely honed sense of taste to predict the technical future and inspire the technicians to invent it.

This unusual form of genius, if that’s what it was, makes Jobs a particularly accessible role model for the tech industry. Many people who work on technology for a living are not Wozniak-level programmers. We flatter ourselves that we can contribute to the industry by helping those more gifted at writing code understand the needs of users, the importance of usability, the applicability of technical breakthroughts to unexpected new markets. Perhaps, like Steve, we can “put a dent in the universe” by connecting someone’s technical innovations with new markets.

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People who can bridge between engineers and end users are important, necessary and often hard to find. It’s harder than it might appear to build these bridges in ways that respect and appreciate all those involved in building and marketing new technologies. In finding ways to bridge constructively and respectfully, Jobs is a lousy role model much of the time. The answer to “What Would Steve Jobs Do” is often “bully someone” or “throw a tantrum”. Unfortunately, it’s often easier to emulate Jobs’s less attractive personality traits than it is to replicate his design sensibilities.

Taking a break from Isaacson’s book, I read a thoughtful essay by Joshua Wolf Shenk, a preview of his new book, Powers of Two. Shenk argues that the myth of the solitary genius has dominated much of our thinking about creativity and obscures the fact that many people we know as geniuses worked in pairs or in larger teams. Shenk is particularly interested in creative pairings, pointing out that Einstein worked through the theory of relativity with Michele Besso, that Picasso invented Cubism with Georges Braque and that Dr. Martin Luther King co-led the civil rights movement with Ralph Abernathy and others.

There’s a way to read Isaacson’s biography in support of Shenk’s argument. Jobs was most productive as a serial collaborator, and was often disastrously unsuccessful when he wasn’t challenged by a strong partner or a team he respected. Jobs built Apple Computer on the brilliance of Steve Wozniak’s Apple computer, led Pixar to dominance over Disney’s animation business by hitching his star to filmmaker John Lasseter, and reinvented Apple as a music and phone company by partnering closely with Jony Ive. (Search for any of these men and you’ll find a wealth of articles and books declaring them geniuses.) Jobs has been good about crediting these collaborators and, occasionally, teams of collaborators – he saw the Macintosh as a team effort and honored team members at subsequent Apple product launches until his death.

When he didn’t have a strong collaborator or team, Jobs was often lost, as he was when Woz disengaged from Apple after the Apple II, when Jobs founded Next, or during the years Jobs dumped tens of millions into Pixar as a technology company, before Lasseter’s films demonstrating Pixar hardware took the company out of obscurity. In retrospect, this is obvious – Jobs didn’t write code or build prototypes. Instead, he shaped and guided the work that others did, making it better. Without a worthy collaborator, Jobs’s deeply impressive skillset was insufficient and often irrelevant.

It doesn’t lessen Jobs to recognize that creative genius comes from collaboration. Letting go of the idea that Shakespeare was a solitary genius writing masterworks in an attic without outside input and accepting that he was a member of a popular theatre company, incorporating the influences and feedback of other writers and actors into his creations makes him more fascinating to me, not less. Since we don’t have much access to the historical details of Shakespeare’s life, it’s easier to see these collaborative dynamics in modern biographies. Jobs may be one of the best examples of the collaborative genius idea, as the solitary genius narrative simply makes no sense in considering his history. We can imagine Shakespeare alone in a garrett or Einstein puzzling out equations alone at a blackboard, but Jobs alone is just an angry vegan too picky about design to furnish his own mansion.

In writing a biography, it’s natural to lionize the protagonist, if only to explain why she or he merited the author’s attention. Isaacson is better than some in featuring Jobs’s collaborators and influences, but the form ultimately dictates that the book is about a single individual, not pairs and teams of collaborators. The narrative arc is that of Jobs’s life, not the life of the companies he built, the products they created or the industries they influenced.

How do we tell the stories of partnerships and collaborations? Shenk’s book promises to tell the stories of creative pairings, both visible ones like Lennon and McCartney and invisible ones like that of Vladimir and Vera Nabokov. But his essay hints at the intriguing problem of telling stories of more complex collaborations, like the one I experienced at Tripod. How do we tell a story about creativity and collaboration at Wikipedia that doesn’t become a biography of Jimmy Wales? Is there a story about Linux that’s not a portrait of Linus Torvalds, an examination of Free Software that isn’t a character sketch of Richard Stallman? Not only are humans creatures who think in terms of stories, we are social beings, which means there is nothing we are so attuned to as the life stories of successful people.

Nathan Matias, a brilliant poet, literary scholar and software developer (who happens to be my doctoral student) has been working on better systems to acknowledge and credit the dozens of collaborators he’s worked with on his various projects. His personal website features almost a hundred collaborators – clicking on the icon for any of us reveals projects we’ve worked on with Nathan. It’s a first step towards a broader effort at designing acknowledgement on the web, and a key part of Nathan’s research on collaboration that leverages cultural and cognitive diversity. If we want to encourage diverse collaboration (and the end of Rewire makes a case for why we need to do so), we need to figure out how to recognize and celebrate people who work as creative teams, not just those who demand to be celebrated as geniuses.

Steve Jobs changed the world, or at least some highly visible corners of it. The story of his life, his successes and his failures is an important one for anyone who designs products and tools for large audiences. It would be a shame if the message we took from Isaacson’s book were that success comes from arrogance, self-certainty and cruelty. Until someone discovers a better way to write biographies of collaboration, that’s a message many readers will take away.

One Response to “How do you write a biography about collaboration?”

  1. Ed Platt says:

    We definitely had this problem at i3. The media was confused and a bit put off by our collaborative nature. So I think about this a lot, and really appreciate Nathan’s work.

    There’s always the fictional “CEO” type like Adam Selene from The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress or even “Monty Python.”

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