NEW YORK — Seattle entrepreneur Rich Barton has long touted an investment philosophy grounded in a belief that great things happen when information is unlocked, and put in the hands of everyday people. It’s a movement that the tech executive and investor has used to help build groundbreaking companies such as Expedia (travel data), Zillow (housing data), Glassdoor (jobs data) and Avvo (legal services data).
But what happens when people are deluged with too much information — or as what occurred during the 2016 U.S. presidential election — bad information.
Does that put Barton’s “power to the people” philosophy at risk? Or at least give him pause?
That was the word from Barton who caught up with GeekWire following his appearance at the Inman Connect real estate conference, which interestingly enough was hosted just a few steps away from the smash Broadway hit Hamilton.
“I tend to think that the upsides of giving power to the people dramatically outweigh the downsides. Dramatically,” said Barton, who serves as executive chairman of Zillow Group and a venture partner at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Benchmark. “Giving people voice who didn’t have voice is good. Giving people information who didn’t have information is good. Giving everyone the ability to be a publisher, and not just the elites, is generally very good. Now, are there bad aspects of each one of those things? Absolutely, and we are experiencing some of those right now.”
When Barton was formulating his “power to the people” philosophy more than a decade ago, he never foresaw it taking the ugly turn that it did, with people using the tools of the Internet and social media to mislead and misinform.
Barton said it “wasn’t obvious” when he was forming Expedia or Zillow that unlocking data on the Internet would lead to the problems of today — things like fake news or fake reviews.
“No, I did not foresee this, whatever this is, and having a Tweeting president,” said Barton.
Even so, Barton noted that Spencer Rascoff — who took over the CEO reins from Barton in 2010 — was one of the first high-profile “Tweeting CEOs.”
“I watched that and gave him room on that, even though it was not what a typical CEO did,” said Barton. “He was using a new magic power that no one else had really figured out yet. He was a wizard amongst muggles, and that is how the whole world is feeling with Donald Trump right now. Donald Trump is a wizard, and he knows magic, and everyone else is scrambling to try to figure out what spell he’s casting.”
Barton has not thought too much about the uproar over fake news, but he said traditional news organizations will never again be able mediate the news. Facebook and Twitter also have a responsibility on the content that appears on their networks, but Barton added that “there’s always going to be another communications system that is not intermediated by somebody with a conscience.”
“We are just at the beginning,” said Barton, adding that the problem is similar to fake reviews from more than a decade ago. That was something he encountered first-hand at sites such as Glassdoor and TripAdvisor.
“I think the answer for all of these review sites is: ‘OK, you do what you can to mediate. You look for obviously bad behavior, and you clip it. But, mostly, you rely on users to filter,” he said.
Barton said that he’s never questioned his “power to the people” philosophy, noting that it has “just begun” and while it took an “unexpected form” in the most recent U.S. presidential election, the idea is here to stay.
Going forward, Barton is a big believer that the democratic process will be more direct in the future.
“We are kind of a direct democracy now, or we are headed towards it at least,” said Barton, adding that the founding fathers “put up a lot of gates to direct democracy.”