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Joi Ito: Master of multitasking

by Tomoko Otake

Joichi Ito, better known as Joi Ito, defies any one simple label.

Japanese-born, he is U.S.-educated, and as a result is both bicultural and perfectly bilingual. Although he is a highly successful free-market venture capitalist, he is also a fervent advocate of social democracy and freedom of speech. And, while he is revered as one of the world’s “cyber-elite,” he is poles apart from the stereotype of new-rich IT entrepreneurs, instead living quietly with his fiancee in a traditional Japanese-style house in a Chiba Prefecture village some 90 minutes from central Tokyo.

Now aged 40, Ito has been an entrepreneur for a long time, having set up a nightclub in Tokyo back when he was “around 24.” He has founded several Internet and technology companies, including the now-defunct Internet service provider PSINet Japan, Digital Garage and the search engine Infoseek Japan. In every case, apart from his personal venture capital company Neoteny Co., Ito left the day-to-day management of the companies he formed just as their business really took off — because, as he concedes, engaging in repetitious “production activities” as a company CEO does not excite him.

In addition to holding positions at more than 20 public and private-sector organizations, Ito is also a vocal advocate of the power of blogging, and his own blog is proof. Many of the posts on his site (joi.ito.com/) — be it his thoughts on a Bill Clinton speech or his “I don’t understand economics” comment on a book written by a Nobel-winning economist — come out at the top of Google’s search results for the subject, he says, much to his surprise. On the Net, Ito also makes public his whereabouts and schedule, the music he listens to and who he has met and/or had dinner with — not so much to show off, he says, but because he wants to control the information about himself “a little bit more.”

Lately, another item has been added to Ito’s already long Wikipedia entry: “master” of a 300-member “guild,” or team, in the phenomenally popular online computer game World of Warcraft, which has 7 million players worldwide. Interestingly enough, he says the game is a great way for him to learn about human nature and small communities — as well as management.

Meanwhile, Ito is currently on the boards of various IT and other companies, such as blog search-engine company Technorati and major ticket distribution/publishing company Pia Corporation. He also works with nonprofit groups such as the Mozilla Foundation, which created the open-source Web-browser Firefox, and Creative Commons, which helps creators share their work via the Internet without compromising their intellectual property rights.

On a recent afternoon, at his office in Meguro Ward, central Tokyo, friendly and fast-talking Ito took time to explain to The Japan Times the philosophy behind these frantic activities — while hundreds of people were probably queuing up online to chat with him, for either business or World of Warcraft reasons. He also shared his thoughts on how he believes Japan, with its aging population, needs to open itself to the outside world in order to survive.

How long have you been blogging?

I think people define blogging differently. I started my personal Web page back when the Web just started, I think it was in 1994. Then I changed to Movable Type, which is a blogging software, and later I invested in the company — in 2002, I think. I’ve being doing it since then — and it’s evolved. As blogs become more popular and you get more influence, you have to be much more careful about what you say. So lately, I’ve started focusing more of my time on another blogging software, Vox, a product that’s just been launched, which is more geared toward writing to family and friends and small communities — so I can say silly things. I still blog, but not as much as I used to.

What’s so great about blogging? And what do you think about the phenomenon in Japan?

When the Internet bubble burst [around 2000], that’s when the blogging tools started to come out. Big companies — AOL-Time Warner and Microsoft and Yahoo — they were trying to get customers and hold them. So if you look at technologies from that period — instant messenging systems by America Online, Microsoft Network and Yahoo — you can’t talk to each other. That’s interesting, because the Internet is based on getting people to talk to each other.

During the bubble, these big corporate interests tried to prevent users from talking to each other. When the Internet bubble burst, a lot of people went back to the roots of the Internet, which is, “we are supposed to talk to each other.”

I think that U.S. blogs tended to be current events, and news and politics-oriented at the beginning, whereas in Japan, it’s been kind of tarento [TV celebrities], entertainment, food and travel, and it has been more diary-oriented.

A lot of blogging in the United States was linked with struggles against mainstream journalism, like the Dan Rather incident. [In that incident, in Sept. 2004, bloggers questioned the authenticity of an internal National Guard memo on George W. Bush's performance in the force in the 1970s. The memo, obtained by major TV network CBS and broadcast on Rather's news program "60 Minutes," turned out to be bogus, virtually forcing the high-profile anchor to step down in March 2005.] The interesting thing about blogs is that, if you write something that is wrong or inconsistent, you will be very quickly torn down, because a lot of blogging is about critique and fact-checking. There was once a release from a wire service that said, “Rumsfeld bans cameraphones in Iraq.” Me and Xeni Jardin from [influential blog site] BoingBoing saw it. We said it sounded fishy. So we started digging into it. She called the U.S. Department of Defense; I asked some people; and we wrote a posting that said, “This sounds very fishy. We don’t see any other reference to this announcement. We can’t believe that he would’ve just said it to to one wire service . . .” Then a couple of mainstream media papers picked it up and ran the story as it was from the wire service, but by then bloggers had already debunked the story. And we enjoyed that.

A lot of times, lots of eyeballs have wisdom that one expert can’t have. Once I was talking to somebody who does research for the CIA. The CIA apparently has a very hard time because they can’t go around and publicly ask everybody questions . . . whereas bloggers can just say, “I think this. But I’m not positive. What do you think?”

Obviously, you are very open online; you have numerous contacts, images of your home and even a calendar of events you plan to attend posted on your blog. Where do you draw the line? Do you have a private side?

What I do is not necessarily the right answer for everybody. I’m public enough so anyone who spends some energy trying to find out about me can. To me, it’s about controlling [information about me] a little bit more. If somebody really wanted to go after me, wanted to find out where I lived, wanted to know my bank account, it’s very easy to do it. To me it [revealing facts about my life] creates less misunderstanding because people understand the context. For the average person, I think it kind of depends. I’m not that likely to be targeted. I say some controversial things, but I’m not in a field of business where somebody would want to kill me or kidnap me, I don’t think. . . . Having said that, I’m very much a privacy advocate.

Why are you a privacy advocate?

The main reason why privacy to me is important is that in the information age, it’s becoming easier and easier for those people in power to collect organized information about people. It’s not really about so-and-so watching pornography, but about information that people would use to characterize you for the purpose of some kind of discrimination — such as people who would end up on a no-flight list, a terrorist list, a you-can’t-join-my-company list or a you-can’t-marry-my-daughter list. Lots and lots of technologies are creating lots and lots of lists. If you are a normal citizen, you don’t want to end up on those lists, so you start behaving in ways that you think won’t put you on them.

To me, if the 20th century was about armed revolutions and democracies being driven by revolution, I think the 21st century is about information. You need to have a competition of ideas, a dialogue, to have the ability to question authority without a fear of retribution. And the freedom of the press was really a big part of that. But now more and more of the press is becoming somewhat political, somewhat content-oriented rather than news-oriented. . . . If you go to Iran, almost all of the free public speech now is on anonymous blogs, because newspapers have been shut down. Or if you go to Zimbabwe, you can’t have public meetings any more, because they will shut you down. So the Internet has become the primary way for people to organize democratic free speech. And if you don’t enable that, we will have a harder and harder time evolving into democracy and free speech.

Your campaign against Juki Net [a computerized national ID system] didn’t work out. What do you think the Juki Net has done so far?

Luckily, it’s not nearly as successful as they thought it would be. It’s turning out to be just a big waste of money. But it’s drifting in a direction we had worried about. The ID number was originally intended for local government services, but some banks and ministries [other than the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry] have tried to use it for identification purposes. So it will either fail completely, or it will become successful because it gets into all these other services. What’s happening everywhere, not just in Japan, is that identification systems are being put in place to track bad people. But bad people can get fake IDs. It’s only the “sort-of” bad people who get caught.

[During a campaign for a two-year moratorium on a bill to start the Juki Net], we had an overwhelming amount of media on our side. More than half of the people polled, I think it was by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, said they were uncomfortable. Most of the big factions of the [ruling] Liberal Democratic Party had signed our letter. And yet the bill went through anyway. I asked some people what the problem was, and they said that it would’ve caused too much confusion if we had stopped the bill at that point, because they had set up a group in the ministry and they had gotten all the vendors going. . . . To me, it was a clear signal that democracy was broken. . . . That’s when I started getting involved in blogging, but also more involved in politics.

Although you are now taking perhaps more of a political role, you are a big fan of online gaming. Isn’t that a bit contradictory?

One of the most learning-intensive periods of my life was when I dropped out of college to become a nightclub DJ in Chicago. I moved into a community of punks and drug dealers and AIDS victims. . . . My intuition at the time from the friends that I had, and from the somewhat privileged environment I was in, was that this kind of lower-class, working-class environment was probably not nearly as educated or sophisticated. But what I found out very quickly was that they were often more caring, very open and friendly. I learned so much about giving and support.

Video games have always been kind of stigmatized, and they are kind of a working-class entertainment. When I go to my WoW guild, my raid leader is a night-shift nurse. We have bartenders. We have unemployed people, lots of military folks, policemen — there is a community made up of a very diverse set of people. And what’s interesting is that every single MBA who has tried to take the leadership role in the guild has failed. Leadership in these kinds of situations is much more about listening, and leadership is not exclusive to people in the leading class. It kind of translates into, say, understanding how open-source projects work, or how Firefox might be managed. This may all sound like a very long, elaborated excuse for playing lots of World of Warcraft. (Laugh) But I can learn a lot of things in places where typically people don’t think there is learning.

I think a lot of people would be interested in finding out whether you are a financial success or not.

Oh, that’s a good question (Laugh). It depends on how you measure it. For me, financial success is about having enough money or influence to do whatever you think you would ever need to do. I also believe that more than enough is too much. When I was starting in business, I actually went to and worked with and got to know a lot of business mentors . . . and I found that many of them were very unhappy. Many people had lost their wives to too much work, or were obsessed with money and thought that their bank card and their financial success was their only measure of success. . . . What I’ve found personally, is that also during that period I met people who were very successful, but money wasn’t their primary motive — such as [novelist] Ryu Murakami, [musician] Ryuichi Sakamoto, artists, open-source people — and I decided that I wanted to balance.

I’m financially successful enough so I’m able to give a reasonable amount of money to organizations I want to give to; I’m able to eat just about anything that I want to without worrying about how much it costs. But I wouldn’t say I have the kind of fortune that allows me to boast about being financially successful.

Investing in startup companies is also really important for me in order to give young entrepreneurs a chance, because I think that funding them drives innovations. Having said that, I would rather not sit and have to obsess about money as a primary focus of my life.

What would be the focus of your life, then?

The focus of my life is to try to make my environment better. “Better” to me means surrounding myself with stimulating people and ideas, continuing to learn. My company name — Neoteny — has negative connotations, too, but it means retention of childlike attributes in adulthood. Child-attributes include, but are not limited to, the feeling of wonder, curiosity, joy, funny things, growth — and those are all things that I want to always continue to have in life.

The negative side of that is I tend to lack persistence sometimes. I don’t want to be the CEO of a company where I do the same thing every day. As a personality type, I’m much more of a network person, where I’m part of connecting things together, and probably less about repeating production activities. But I think you need all types. If everybody in the world was like me, it wouldn’t work. (Laugh)

You have said that some amateur creators are getting better than professionals. Where do you see the conventional, old-school media headed?

I think the conventional media, or mainstream media, have the ability to fund stories, such as specials and investigative journalism. They also have a fairly good editorial process. So I don’t discount at all the value of that process. But on the other hand, for instance, if you look at video-editing, a lot of TV stations still use very expensive studios and editing processes [which are not cost effective]. So they make a lot of dumb shows for a lot of money. At the lower end, there will be a lot of competition like that. Some of these amateur people will go pro, and some of the pros will go amateur.

But the other thing is, the word “amateur” means doing something because you love it, and not because you are being paid. And being paid to do something doesn’t necessarily make you better at it.

There is actually this interesting relationship between small blogs and medium-size blogs and big blogs. Very small blogs are individual blogs, where you may every once in a while find tidbits that have something to do with big media — like the guy who noticed the Dan Rather letter. Then there are these [mid-size] niche things, which are focused on certain issues, [and whose creators] read all these little blogs. Then there are these big blogs like BoingBoing, which I think are like an amplifier. When they hit a certain threshold, the mainstream media picks it up and broadcasts it out to the rest of the world. When the mainstream media talks about something, it synchronizes everybody in the blogosphere to start thinking about the topic, and it goes back again to the mainstream. So it’s becoming, I think, a very interesting ecosystem of people interested in issues.

In “Ko wo Mitsumeru Daiarogu (A Dialogue Pondering on Individuality),” a book you recently coauthored with Ryu Murakami, you said that, while many Japanese aren’t in the habit of looking at things from a global perspective, Japanese products and cultures are highly praised overseas. Would you elaborate on that?

Japan still has the second-largest GDP in the world. It’s very closed and it’s able to stay closed, so you can basically grow up in Japan and live a good life without ever leaving Japan or learning anything other than Japanese. And as well, you’ll be more comfortable than just about any other place you could find, so there is no short-term need for people to be global — whereas in smaller countries, you just can’t get beyond a certain point in your own country, so you go out.

If you look at successful Japanese companies like SoftBank and Rakuten, they are buying a baseball team in Japan before they are expanding internationally. In most economies, you would have these companies going international or looking at Japan from the outside, but instead we have become vertical. Successful Japanese companies buy a securities company, buy a bank, buy an Internet company, buy a baseball team. I think that’s fairly fragile; there are not a lot of inputs into the system in terms of technologies, people and ideas.

Do you think the fact that Rakuten had to expand vertically within Japan was because of the stifling of entrepreneurship in Japan?

I can’t say for sure. I think Mikitani-san [Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani] knows the world. He speaks English. He went to Harvard. I don’t think he’s been very stifled. But it’s just the natural momentum of things in Japan, with your employees, with your investors, to continue to do that which makes more money — and it’s easy.

But in the long term, I think this will be a problem, because we’ll end up in a fishbowl. There are a lot of very prominent Japanese who would, for instance, say, “Don’t speak English at my dinner table.” Xenophobic discrimination against foreign influence is tolerated at very high levels in Japan. Having said that, there are very open people, too. And by the way, I’m not a communist. (Laugh) I just think that racial diversity, social diversity and open borders are good things. And tolerance is a good thing.