In some ways, Mr. Ito’s style foreshadows the changing nature of knowledge work; he moves among many organizations at once, balancing his entrepreneurial individualism against an avid, even obsessive participation in the organizations and communities that interest him, whether online or offline. In one week earlier this year, he advised Yasuo Tanaka, governor of Japan’s Nagano prefecture, on creating a free voice over IP service; kicked off former Sony Chairman Nobuyuki Idei’s annual retreat for senior executives in Hawaii with a talk about how to profit from “free” media; and then flew on to Amsterdam to address a hacker’s convention about open source software strategies. A week later, he was in San Francisco, counseling the lawyers at the Creative Commons on how to balance intellectual property protection with real-world Web usage patterns.
Typically, when Mr. Ito discerns an idea with promise, he founds a company or funds an existing business to capitalize on that promise. Once the business is humming, he walks away to the next cool idea, expressing little interest in the money made on the venture, but continuing to evangelize its potential as a builder of communities and an enabler of public participation.
“This is Joi’s way of working,” says his younger sister, Mizuko “Mimi” Ito, who is a research scientist at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center and coeditor of Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life (MIT Press, 2005). “He immerses himself in things; he participates. That’s why his way of learning is so different from academics or pundits who tend to talk about things without trying them out. I think Joi gets a lot of street cred because he actually jumps in.”
Indeed, in nearly all of his investments, Mr. Ito has been an obsessive user of the technology before putting any money to work. Typical was his early involvement with Six Apart, the San Francisco startup that created Movable Type, a leading software tool for producing blogs. Mr. Ito started using the program in 2001 and approached the founders in 2002. “I started playing around with blog software,” says Mr. Ito, “and I sort of just clicked about where this was all going to go. Then I blogged like crazy until I understood blogging well. Then I went and met every blogging company worth talking to. I ended up approaching the company that made the software that I was using.”
Even then, the founders of Six Apart — a husband-and-wife team named Ben and Mena Trott — told him they weren’t interested in accepting venture capital. But Mr. Ito persisted. “Joi brought an enthusiasm as a user, which we don’t assume in most investors,” says Mena Trott. “He localized Movable Type in Japanese, independent of any funding. He also donated some money, just as a user; it was probably about $1,500, which was our biggest donation ever. And a lot of our early relationships, like our partnerships with Fujitsu and NTT, were helped by Joi’s connections in Japan.”
Despite his occasional forays into left-wing politics (he advised the Howard Dean campaign on its use of blogs and digital networks), Mr. Ito professes to have no particular political agenda. Indeed, the common theme among his interests and investments is always media and media-created communities. Blogs, wikis, and mass-market role-playing games are all instruments that allow people to communicate and collaborate in depth with people they would never otherwise meet.
“He has a leading-edge insight into communities and the ways they’re using technologies on the Net,” says Lawrence Lessig, the C. Wendell and Edith M. Carlsmith Professor of Law at Stanford, chairman of the Creative Commons, and author of Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity (Penguin, 2005). “These technologies destabilize existing corporate structures, but also create different social and corporate power structures. Joi’s a mixture of anthropologist and activist; he’s uniquely willing to play as both an insider and an outsider.”