Technology

Life among the cyber-elite

Image caption As one of the most influential people on the web, Joi Ito has played a part many huge online projects

Joichi 'Joi' Ito is to start-ups what Brian Epstein was to the Beatles.

With a talented eye for a promising idea, the 44-year-old has spotted and nurtured some of the web's most famous names, with the likes of Twitter, Flickr and Last.fm all receiving his help on the path to social-networking success.

Time Magazine has described him as a member of the cyber-elite, a select band of internet personalities who command enviable levels of influence on the web.

Born in Japan before moving to North America, Joi dropped out of two universities before embarking on a career that spans all corners of the web.

His CV reads like a history of the web.

In March 2004, he joined blog listings site Technorati, a site which helped an infant blogosphere grow.

In April of the same year, he became CEO of Six Apart Japan - a subsidiary of the company that produces Movable Type, a blogging platform used by millions, including the BBC.

He sits on the board at the Mozilla Foundation - responsible for the Firefox browser and other open-source projects - and had a three-year stint on the board of ICANN, which oversees the net's addressing system.

But arguably his most significant work is with Creative Commons - first as a board member and then later as CEO - which has seen him pioneer the copyright-free, sharing movement online.

Cost of failure

It is not all success, however. For every Twitter or Flickr, there are countless failures that will never make it.

"Investors only talk about their successes," said Mr Ito.

"The good thing is, the cost of failure for open-source is nearly zero. The cost of failure for start-up companies is very small.

"There's a website called Sourceforge, where people start open-source and free software projects. And I think close to 99% of those projects are complete failures - no-one downloads them, ever.

"But the cost to society for all of those failures is nearly zero because it's some kid in a bedroom, comes up with an idea, posts the idea, generates an interest around it, spends a couple of hours of his own time - and that's it."

In amongst those failures, the likes of Linux, Firefox and Wikipedia are born.

"The author Clay Shirky talks about this: The cost of failure being low allows you to swing the bat a lot."

He says this approach to business makes the start-ups far more flexible than bigger companies when it comes to innovation.

"[As] a large corporation, if you want to try out an idea, you have to organise, you have to get a budget.

"Just thinking about the idea can cost millions of dollars. The risk of failure is huge. So you become, by nature, conservative."

Googles and Yahoos

For those who persevere with the flops, the rewards are huge.

"What you find is approximately one in ten will do something that returns a decent amount.

"I would say that for a typical venture capitalist the way that you look at it is that Googles and Yahoos come once every five years."

And when those opportunities arise, for investors, reputation is everything.

"Because these companies require so little money at the beginning, most of the good companies are over-subscribed. You can't get in.

"And so the good entrepreneurs tend to be able to choose investors that they want, and so it really is a beauty contest where the seller is the investor and not the entrepreneur.

"What you're really trying to do is make enough money so you're not losing money, but you want to get invited to the party when Google comes through town.

"And the way you get invited to the party is being a good guy, being somebody who contributes value, being well-known, having successes."

Creative movement

Which is where Mr Ito's non-profit efforts set him apart from other investors.

As CEO of Creative Commons, he evangelises the "open" web, a network which allows people to share their content with others, forgoing the usual copyright laws which restrict such actions.

Image caption On the web, for-proft and non-profit work regularly crosses over, says Mr Ito

The movement - as it is often described - has aided fledgling designers, musicians, developers, and others, to produce work that would have not otherwise have been possible.

Mr Ito says that on the web, the line between for-profit and non-profit is constantly blurred, and that they complement each other.

"The non-profit work is a great way to do several things. You meet all the bright people, and also the non-profits that I've worked in are all non-profits that work on the standards and the infrastructure that we use."

Attention elitists

Mr Ito does not relish being described as a member of the cyber-elite.

"I don't like elitists, and I'm very much into empowering the grassroots, and that's my whole message. Being called cyber-elite makes me somewhat uncomfortable," he said.

"I think there are people who get more attention, and maybe get more than their fair share of attention, and I think there are people who have influence."

That influence, he says, is distinctly different to reputation in the "real world".

"I think that the biggest difference between influence on the internet and influence in real life is usually privilege comes from some sort of bottom up.

"The people choose who their leaders are. Whereas I think in the real world a lot of privilege comes from where you were born and how much money you have."

Web influence can of course be measured in many different ways, from how much money your online businesses make to how many followers you have on Twitter. But Mr Ito argues influence is simply about getting things done.

"When you need something, all the people and all the things that you need suddenly come together.

"The network doesn't owe me anything, but when I need something to happen, when I need to find a bunch of people who can help me with this or help me with that, it's quite easy for me to find the people I need because of the way my network is constructed."

You can hear the full interview with Joi Ito on this week's The Interview from the BBC World Service.

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