Joho the Blog

September 17, 2014

The problem is not with our imaginations

Yet another brilliant post by Ethan. (I think I’m going to turn that into a keyboard macro. I’ll just have to type ^EthanTalk and that opening sentence will get filled in.) It’s a reflection on the reaction to his piece in the Atlantic about advertising as the Net’s original sin, and the focus on his “confession” that he wrote the code for the Net’s first popup ad.

But I think I actually disagree with one of his key points. In other words, I’m very likely wrong. Nevertheless…

Ethan explains why the Net has come to rely on advertising money:

We had a failure of imagination. And the millions of smart young programmers and businesspeople spending their lives trying to get us to click on ads are also failing to imagine something better. We’re all starting from the same assumptions: everything on the internet is free, we pay with our attention, and our attention is worth more if advertisers know more about who we are and what we do, we start business with money from venture capitalists who need businesses to grow explosively if they’re going to make money.

He recommends that we question our assumptions so we can come up with more imaginative solutions.

I agree with Ethan’s statement of the problem, and admire his ability to put it forward with such urgency. But it seems to me that the problem is less a failure of imagination than the success of the power of incumbent systems.Is access to the Net in exactly the wrong hands because of the failure of someone to imagine a better way, or because of the structural corruption of capitalism? Similarly, why are we failing to slow global warming in an appreciable way? (Remember when Pres. Reagan took down the solar panels Pres. Carter had installed on the White House?) Why are elections still disproportionately determined by the wealthy? In each of these cases, imagination has lost to entrenched systems. We had innovative ways of accessing the Net, we’ve had many great ideas for slowing global warming, we have had highly imaginative attempts to get big money out of politics, and they all failed to one degree or another. Thuggish systems steal great ideas’ lunch money. Over and over and over.

Ethan of course recognizes this. But he ties these failures to failures of the imagination when one could just as well conclude that imagination is no match for corrupt systems — especially since we’ve now gone through a period when imagination was unleashed with a force never before seen, and yet the fundamental systems haven’t budged. This seems to be Larry Lessig’s conclusion, since he moved from CreativeCommons — an imaginative, disruptive approach — to a super-Pac that plays on the existing field, but plays for the Good Guys ‘n’ Gals.

Likewise, one could suggest that the solution — if there is one — is not more imagination, but more organizing. More imagination will only work if the medium still is pliable. Experience suggests it never was as pliable as some of us thought.

But the truth is that I really don’t know. I don’t fully believe the depressing “bad thugs beat good ideas” line I’ve just adumbrated. I certainly agree that it’s turning out to be much harder to overturn the old systems than I’d thought twenty or even five years ago. But I also think that we’ve come much further than we often realize. I take it as part of my job to remind people of that, which is why I am almost always on the chirpier side of these issues. And I certainly think that good ideas can be insanely disruptive, starting with the Net and the Web, and including Skype, eBay, Open Source, maps and GPS, etc.

So, while I don’t want to pin the failure of the Net on our failure of imagination, I also still have hope that bold acts of imagination can make progress, that our ability to iterate at scale can create social formations that are new in the world, and that this may be a multi-generational fight.

I therefore come out of Ethan’s post with questions: (1) What about this age made it possible even to think that imagination could disrupt our most entrenched systems? (2) What makes some ideas effectively disruptive, and why do other equally imaginative good ideas fail? And what about unimaginative ideas that make a real difference? (The Birmingham bus boycott was not particular imaginative, but it sure packed a wallop.) (3) What can we do make it easier for great acts of imagination to become real?

For me, #1 has to do with the Internet. (Color me technodeterminist.) I don’t have anything worthwhile to say about #2. And I still have hope that the answer to #3 has something to do with the ability of billions of people to make common cause— and, more powerfully, to iterate together — over the Net. Obviously #3 also needs regulatory reform to make sure the Internet remains at least a partially open ecosystem.

So, I find myself in deep sympathy with the context of what Ethan describes so well and so urgently. But I don’t find the rhetoric of imagination convincing.

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September 16, 2014

[liveblog] Hendrik Hertzberg on the quick fix for our Constitutional morass

I’m at a Shorenstein lunch talk where Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker is talking about the difficulty of electing a government with the infrastructure we have. The place is packed. HH was one of the very first Shorenstein fellows. When he was here he was covering the 1988 presidential campaign. (I’m sitting immediately behind him, so I will be able to report in detail on the expressiveness of the back of his head.)

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

He says that we keep thinking that if we could just elect the right president, everything would be fine. We have a cult of presidents. But the problem is in the Constitution. “The machine that elects the president is a machine for disappointment.” You get elected by announcing ideals, not by saying that you’re going to have to engage in a series of ghastly compromises. “So much is due to the Framers, who were at the cutting edge in their day.” He points out that when the Constitution was being framed, framing it was illegal, for we already had the Articles of Confederation that said any changes required a unanimous vote by the thirteen colonies. “We should try to be like them [the Founders] and think boldly about our system,” rather than merely worshipping them.

HH reads some selections from the Framers. First, a letter from G. Washington stating that the Constitution is imperfect but was the best that could be agreed upon; he put his hopes in the process of amendment.

HH says we should be wary of the Federalist Papers. “They were op-eds written to sell a particular compromise.” They’re high-minded and don’t reflect what really happened. E.g., Madison and Hamilton hated each state getting the same number of senators. Hamilton wrote that letting a minority rule would lead to gridlock, compromise, and near anarchy…our current situation, says HH.

We are still told the Electoral College exists to to protect the interests of the smaller states and prevent mob rule. “The truth is that it was adopted in order to protect slavery.” Madison, perhaps half-seriously, suggested that the lower house be elected by vote and that the upper house should be elected with the three-fifths rule. The lower would represent the interests of the citizens and the upper would represent the slave states’ interests, because that was the real distinction. “The Electoral College system was born in sin.”

In 1968, we almost got a Constitutional amendment to get rid of the Electoral College, but it was fillibustered by Sam Ervin.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact will change this. (The idea for making this into an interstate compact came from a Stanford computer science prof., John Koza.) The Constitution instructs the states to come up with electors who then vote for the state in the presidential election. The states that support the NPVIC say their electors will vote for whoever wins the national popular vote. It goes into effect when the compacting states add up to 270 votes, which would guarantee that the election goes to the winner of the popular vote. This does not require changing the Constitution. And it’s 60% of the way to happening: 11 states + DC. (Mass. has adopted it.) All eleven states are blue states, but there’s Republican support, although their platform came out against it. New Gingrich is a recent convert. Fred Thompson. Many others.

This reform would be an enormous move toward civic health, HH says. No more battleground states. No more spectator states. It would affect how campaign money is spent, although not how it is raised; it would have to be spent all around the country. It would boost turnout by increasing turnout in the spectator states.

Q: How does this compact ensure the electors keep their promise?

A: It’d be a state law. And it says states cannot withdraw from it during the campaign period.

HH continues. We have a controlled experiment: There are a lot of things wrong with Obama, but we’re not going to get anyone much better. This has made apparent the weaknesses in the system. Our dysfunction is the result of people responding to rewards and punishments built into the system. NPVIC is the “gettable reform.” We could get this one by 2016, although 2020 is more likely. “I’m all for campaign reform, but the Supreme Court stands in the way.”

HH says that NPVIC is a mom-and-pop outfit. He’s hopeful because the state electors have a reason to vote for this, because right now “no one returns their calls.” The focus now is on getting a first red state. If you’re interested in donating money, HH suggests you give to FairVote.

Q&A

Q: How might this change the geographic location of campaigns? Will this lead to an urban/rural divide? Will Dems campaign more in the North and Reps in the South, thus polarizing us more?

A: That ignores that only 10-15% lives in big cities. [The Census figures are somewhat hard to parse on this. source.] And it would be cost-effective to buy ads in the poorer and less dense parts of the country. “Every single vote is equally worth going after” in this scenario.

Q: Would this shift parties to nominating people more in the mainstream? And what about third parties?

A: The two-party system is essential to a winner-take-all system likes ours. (I’m also in favor of the instant runoff voting reform.) NPVIC gives its votes to the winner of a plurality.

Q: Why isn’t this being talked about more?

A: It’s weirdly hard to grasp. And it can be demagogued against: “So you think you’re smarter than the Framers??” The media will pay more attention once the count gets close to 270.

Q: Even in states that have passed it, nobody knows about it. It looks like a move among political elites.

A: You’re right that nobody knows about it. But people of all parties do favor electing the president by popular vote. The outcome reflects the wishes of the majority of Americans. But, yes, NPVIC is a Rube Goldberg contraption.

Rube Goldberg machine

Q: Have the Tea Party stars — Limbaugh, Beck, etc. — staked out positions?

A: It may have come up for a few minutes, but it hasn’t become a fixture.

Q: The question will be which party is losing more Electoral College votes.

A: Because of 2000, the sense is the Democrats throw away more. In 2004 if 30K votes had shifted in Ohio, Kerry would have won the election while losing the popular vote. [There is a rapid debate about which party throws away more votes. Couldn’t capture it.

Q: Has there been a non-partisan anaysis of this proposal? And why doesn’t the NPVIC campaign have more educational outreach?

A: There has not been much non-partisan analysis, although there’s some. And many governors are directly elected, so I don’t see how much more we need to learn about this. Plus, when you have a quiet, calm conversation with state legislators, they often tend to like it.

Q: Do you worry that linking this movement to others might break apart the coalition?

A: They’re only linked in my mind. “If I had my way, I would translate the German constitution into English and be done with it,” HH says. Americans wrote it. “If the Framers were around now, they’d write that constitution.” “I hope that once this reform kicks in, people will think more about imitating the Framers rather than worshipping them.”

Q: How is political coverage these days?

A: Political coverage tends to ignore the ways in which the hydraulics limit and affect politicians. And since by definition the US Constitution is perfect (we assume), when things go wrong, it must be because of bad people. It’s still basically a morality tale about Good and Bad. You still hear “If only Obama were more like LBJ: get in their and get stuff done” and it drives me nuts. LBJ did that, but he had a huge majority in the House and Senate. When he lost that, he got nothing done. Or, Tom Friedman pushing for a centrist third party, ignoring the fact that we already a centrist party: The Democrats — ignoring that this would make the right the governing party.

Q: Any major figures backing it?

A: I expect Obama and Clinton would be for it, but saying so wouldn’t help. Tying this up with particular personalities can be risky.

Q: Effect on primaries?

A: It wouldn’t affect that directly. They’d want a candidate who can do well in the entire country, not just in the swing states. It would likely cause people to look at the nominating system.

[Next day: I corrected a statement that I'd recorded as certain rather than probabilistic.]

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September 15, 2014

Linux on an old Mac

It looks so far like Mint (a Linux distribution) is working on my 2006 MacBook — one of them old white plastic models. I wiped out the entire disk, so there’s no Mac left except what Apple burned into the hardware. As far as I can tell, everything is working, from audio, to trackpad, to wifi.

Here’s how I did it: I tried everything.

Unfortunately, I can’t quite remember what worked, except that I used Mac Linux USB Loader to create the USB stick from which I booted the Mac into Linux. I also used Iso 2 USB EFI Booter to get the Mac to boot into Linux, although I’m not sure I actually needed that since I wasn’t going for a dual boot.

But I do know that the thing that put me over the top were some commands listed in a comment on a page about how to manually install a bootloader. I was there because after I eventually got Linux installed, it still wouldn’t boot. The article on that page was helpful but I was stilling getting the weird-ass “canonical cow” error message when trying to install grub (the standard Linux bootloader) — you’ll know that error message when you see it. But the commands in the comment at the end by Zigilin got it working:

instead of running grub-install, run cmd below:

mount –bind /proc /mnt/proc

mount –bind /dev /mnt/dev

mount –bind /sys /mnt/sys

chroot /mnt

grub-install /sd#

update-grub

(Replace the # in sd# with the letter of the partition you installed the Linux into. Better: read the article.)

After you get it working, you might want to check this post about how to add some finishing touches.

Thank you, kind Internet strangers!

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September 13, 2014

Something positive about Ronald Reagan

On Christopher Lydon‘s excellent Radio Open Source program, I heard him interview the historian Rick Perlstein about his book The Invisible Bridge. Kissinger tells it in his memoir.

When Kissinger was in the White House, he had to call Reagan, whom he despised. This was during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In the course of the conversation he said that the Egyptians were claiming to be shooting down an absurd number of Israeli planes. Everyone knew they were lying, but the White House wasn’t sure how to counter the propaganda.

Ronald Reagan immediately said, “Well, Henry, announce that the US will replace every downed Israeli plane, one for one.”

Yes, Ronald Reagan had a brilliant idea.

Tomorrow: You won’t believe what Sarah Palin told the Dalai Lama that changed his life forever.

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September 12, 2014

Springtime at Shorenstein

The Shorenstein Center is part of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. The rest of the Center’s name — “On Media, Politics, and Public Policy” — tells more about its focus. Generally, its fellows are journalists or other media folk who are taking a semester to work on some topic in a community of colleagues.

To my surprise, I’m going to spend the spring there. I’m thrilled.

I lied. I’m *\\*THRILLED*//*.

The Shorenstein Center is an amazing place. It is a residential program so that a community will develop, so I expect to learn a tremendous amount and in general to be over-stimulated.

The topic I’ll be working on has to do with the effect of open data platforms on journalism. There are a few angles to this, but I’m particularly interested in ways open platforms may be shaping our expectations for how news should be made accessible and delivered. But I’ll tell you more about this once I understand more.

I’ll have some other news about a part-time teaching engagement in this Spring, but I think I’d better make sure it’s ok with the school to say so.

I also probably should point out that as of last week I left the Harvard Library Innovation Lab. I’ll get around to explaining that eventually.

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September 9, 2014

[liveblog] Robin Sproul, ABC News

I’m at a Shorenstein Center brownbag talk. Robin Sproul is talking about journalism in the changing media landscape. She’s been Washington Bureau Chief of ABC News for 20 years, and now is VP of Public Affairs for that network. (Her last name rhymes with “owl,” by the way.)

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

This is an “incredibly exciting time,” Robin begins. The pace has been fast and is only getting faster. E.g., David Plouffe says that Obama’s digital infrastructure from 2008 didn’t apply in 2012, and the 2012 infrastructure won’t apply in 2016.

A few years ago, news media were worried about how to reach you wherever you are. Now it’s how to reach you in a way that makes you want to pay attention. “How do we get inside your brain, through the firehose, in a way that will break through everything you’re exposed to?” We’re all adapting to getting more and smaller bites. “Digital natives swerve differently than the older generation, from one topic to another.”

In this social media world, “each of us is a news reporter.” Half of people on social networks repost news videos, and one in ten post news videos they’ve recorded themselves.

David Carr: “If the Vietnam War brought war into our living rooms,” now “it’s at our fingertips.” But we see the world through narrow straws. We’re not going back from that, but we need to get better at curating them and making sure they’re accurate and contextualized.

On the positive side: “I was so moved by a Ferguson coverage: how a community of color, in this case, could tell their own story” and connect with people around the country, in real-time. “The people of that community were ahead of the cables.” Sure, some of the info was wrong, but we could watch people bearing witness to history. Also, the Ray Rice video has stimulated conversations on domestic violence around the country. How do you tap into these discussions? Sort them? Curate them? “A lot of it comes down to curation.”

People are not coming into ABCnews.com directly. “They’re coming in through side doors.” “And the big stories we do compete with the animal stories, the recipes,” etc. “We see a place like Buzzfeed” that now has 200 employees. They’ve hired someone from The Guardian, they’ve been reporting from the ground in Liberia. Yahoo’s hired Katie Couric. Vice. Michael Isikoff. Reddit’s AMAs. Fusion has just hired Tim Pool from Vice Media. “All of these things are competing in a rapidly shifting universe.”

ABC is creating partnerships, e.g., with Facebook for identifying what’s trending which is then discussed on their Sunday morning show. [See Ethan Zuckerman's recent post on why Twitter is a better news source than Facebook. Also, John McDermott's Why Facebook is for ice buckets, Twitter is for Ferguson. Both suggest that ABC maybe should rethink its source for what's trending.] ABC uses various software platforms to evaluate video coming in of breaking news. “We need help, so we’re partnering.” ABC now has a social desk. “During a big story, we activate a team…and they are in a deep deep dive of social media,” vetting it for accuracy and providing context. “Six in ten of Americans watch videos on line and half of those watch news videos. This is a big growth area.” But, she adds ruefully, it’s “not a big revenue growth area.”

So, ABC is tapping into social media, but is wary of those who have their own aims. E.g., Whitehouse.gov does reports that look like news reports but are not. The photos the White House hands out never show a yawning, exhausted, or weeping president. “I joke with the press secretary that we’re one step away from North Korea.” We’re heading toward each candidate having their own network, in effect, a closed circle.

Q&A

Q: You’ve describe the fragmentation in the supply of news. But how about the demand? “Are you getting a sense of your audience?” What circulates? What sticks? What sets the agenda? etc.

A: We do a lot of audience research. Our mainstream TV shows attract an aging audience. No matter what we do, they’re not bringing in a new audience. Pretty much the older the audience, the more they like hard news. We’ve changed the pace of the Sunday shows. We think people want a broader lens from us. “We’re not as focused on horse race politics, or what John McCain thinks of every single issue. We’re open to new voices.”

Q: The future of health reporting? I’m disappointed with what I see. E.g., there’s little regard to the optics of how we’re treating Ebola, particular with regard to the physicians getting treated back in the US.

A: Dr. Richard Besser, who ran the CDC, is at ABC and has reported from Africa. But it’s hit or miss. We did cover the white doctors getting the serum, but it’s hard to find in the firehose.

Q: How do you balance quality news with short attention spans?

A: For the Sunday shows we’ve tried to maintain a balance.

Q: Does ABC try to maintain its own pace, or go with the new pace? If the latter, how do you maintain quality?

A: We used to make a ton of money producing the news and could afford to go anywhere. Now we have the same number of hours of news on TV, but the audiences are shrinking and we’re trying to grow. It’s not as deep. It’s broader. We will want to find you…but you have to be willing to be found.

Q: How do you think about the segmentation of your news audience? And what are the differences in what you provide them?

A: We know which of our shows skew older (Sunday shows), or more female (Good Morning America), etc. We don’t want to leave any segment behind. We want our White House reporter to go into depth, but he also has to tweet all day, does a Yahoo show, does radio, accompanies Nancy Pelosi on a fast-walk, etc.

Q: Some of your audiences matter from a business point of view. But historically ABC has tried to supply news to policy makers etc. The 11 year old kids may give you large numbers, but…

A: When we sit in our morning editorial mornings we never say that we will do a story because the 18-24 year olds are interested. The need to know, what we think is important, drives decisions. We used to be programming for “people like us” who want the news. Then we started getting thousands of “nutjob” emails. [I'm doing a bad job paraphrasing here. Sorry] Sam Donaldson was shocked. “This digital age has made us much more aware of all those different audiences.” We’re in more contact with our audience now. E.g., when the media were accused of pulling their punches in the run-up to the Iraq War, we’d get pushback saying we’re anti-American. Before, we didn’t get these waves.

Q: A fast-walk with Nancy Pelosi, really?

A: [laughs] It got a lot of hits.

Q: Can you elaborate on your audience polling? And do people not watch negative stories?

A: A Harvard prof told me last night that s/he doesn’t like watching the news any more because it’s just so depressing. But that’s a fact of life. Anyway, it used to be that the posted comments were very negative, and sometimes from really crazy people. We learned to put that into perspective. Now Twitter provides instant feedback. We’re slammed whatever we do. So we try to come up with a mix. For World News Tonight, people with different backgrounds talk about the stories, how they play off the story before it, etc. Recenty we’ve been criticized for doing too much “news you can use”, how to live your life, etc. We want to give people news that isn’t always just terrible. There’s a lot of negative stuff that we’re exposed to now. [Again, sorry for the choppiness. My fault.]

Q: TV has always had the challenge of the limited time for news. With digital, how are you linking the on-screen reporting with the in-depth online stories, given the cutbacks? How do you avoid answering every tweet? [Not sure I got that right.]

A: We have a mix of products.

Q: What is the number one barrier to investigative journalism? How have new media changed that balance?

A: There are investigative reporting non-profits springing up all the time. There’s an appetite from the user for it. All of the major news orgs still have units doing it. But what is the business model? How much money do you apportion to each vertical in your news division? It’s driven by the appetite for it, how much money you have, what you’re taking it away from. Investigative is a growth industry.

Q: I was a spokesperson for Healthcare.gov and was interested in your comments about this Administration being more closed to the media.

A: They are more closed than prior admins. There’s always a message. When the President went out the other day to talk, no other admin members were allowed to talk with the media. I think it’s a response to how many inquiries are coming and how out of control info is, and how hard it is to respond to inaccuracies that pop up. The Obama administration has clamped down a little more because of that.

Q: You can think of Vice in Liberia as an example of boutique reporting: they do that one story. But ABC News has to cover everything. Do you see a viable future for us?

A: As we go further down this path and it becomes more overwhelming, there are some brands that stand for something. Curation is what we do well. Cyclically, people will go back to these brands.

Q: In the last couple of years, there’s a trend away from narrative to Gestalt. They were called news stories because they had a plot. Recent news events like Ferguson or Gaza were more like just random things. Very little story.

A: Twitter is a tool, a platform. It’s not really driving stories. Maybe it’s the nature of the stories. It’ll be interesting to see how social media are used by the candidates in the 2016 campaign.

Q: Why splitting the nightly news anchor from …

A: Traditionally the evening news anchor has been the chief anchor for the network. George Stephanopoulos anchors GMA, which makes most of the money. So no one wanted to move him to the evening news. And the evening news has become a little less relevant to our network. There’s been a diminishment in the stature of the evening news anchor. And it plays to GS’s strengths.

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September 8, 2014

Progress isn’t what it used to be

At Medium.com I have a short piece on what progress looks like on the Internet, which is not what progress used to look like. I think.

I wrote this for the Next Web conference blog. (I’m keynoting their Dec. conference in NYC.)

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September 1, 2014

End of summer photos

foggy labor day at lake 2014 - 9

foggy labor day at lake 2014 - 18

foggy labor day at lake 2014 - 26

end of summer 2014

(cc) Creative Commons – attribute, share-alike

 


By weird coincidence, my friend Peter Suber posted remarkably similar (but inarguably better) photos of a different lake on the same day.

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August 28, 2014

The problem with civility

Talk about “civility” on the Internet always makes me a little nervous. For a bunch of reasons.

First, I generally try to be civil, but I’d hate to see a Net that is always and only civil. Some rowdiness and rudeness is absolutely required.

Second, civility as a word feels like it comes from a colonial mentality, as if there are the civil folks and then there are the savages. I’m not saying that’s what people mean when they use the term. It’s just what I sometimes hear.

Third, civility is so culturally relative that demanding that someone be civil can actually mean, “Please play by our rules or you shall be removed from the premises!” Which is I guess what gives rise to my second reason.

Fourth, civility seems to be more about the form of interaction, the rhetoric of the interchange. That’s fine. But given a preference, I’d be hectoring people about dignity, not civility. You can be civil without according someone full dignity. If you treat someone with dignity, the civility — and more — will follow. For example, you’ll actually listen. (Note that I fail at this frequently.)

Fifth, civility and dignity are not enough to make the Net the place it ought to be. I would love to see being welcoming taken as a core value for the Best Net, that is, for the Web We Want. Welcoming the stranger is one of the originary traditions of the West, from Abraham inviting strangers into his tent, to the underlying theme of The Odyssey. (Another of our originary traditions: killing or enslaving strangers.) In embracing the stranger, we accord them dignity, we recognize our differences as something positive, and we humble ourselves. So, given a choice, I’d rather hear about a welcoming Net than a merely civil one. (Here’s a shout-out to the new Pew Internet study that reports that we’re not welcoming unpopular views on social media.)

Point five-and-a-half is: Just as welcoming precedes civility, safety precedes welcoming. This is a half point not because safety is a half point but because the outstretched welcoming hand entails reassuring the stranger that she is safe. And more than safe. Safety is essential, but it is obviously nowhere near enough.

Let me be clear, though. When I talk about “the Net,” I’m being misleading. The entire Net is not going to be characterized by any one set of values. And we don’t need the entire Net to be welcoming, civil, and a place where all are treated with dignity. (Safety is a different matter.) But we do need more of the Net to be welcoming, civil, and dignifying. And we absolutely need the networks where power and standing develop to go far beyond civility.

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August 25, 2014

Have social networks replaced groups?

Maxim Weinstein responded in an email to my post about what the social structure of the Internet looked like before Facebook, making the insightful point that Facebook meets the four criteria Clay Shirky listed for social software in his 2003 keynote at eTech. Here are the four with Max’s comments appended:

1. Provide for persistent identities so that reputations can accrue. These identities can of course be pseudonyms.
2. Provide a way for members’ good work to be recognized. < "Like" buttons, sharing
3. Put in some barriers to participation so that the interactions become high-value. < have to accept friend requests
4. As the site’s scale increases, enable forking, clustering, useful fragmentation. < pages

Max goes on to note some nuances. But his comment, plus a discussion yesterday with Andrew Preater, a library technologist at the Imperial College of London, made me think how little progress we’ve in fact made in supporting groups on the Net.

For example, Clay’s post from 2003 marvels at a “broadband conversation” in which the participants communicated simultaneously by conference call, through a wiki, and through a chat, each from a different source. Since 2003, there are now services that bundle together these different modalities: Skype and Google Hangouts both let a group talk, video, chat, and share documents. (Google Docs are functionally wikis, except without the draft>compile>post process.) So, that’s progress…although there is always a loss when disparate services get tightly bundled.

What’s missing is the concept of a group. As my 2003 post said, members of a group know they’re members of a group with some persistence. Skype and Hangouts let people get together, but there are no tools there for enabling that configuration of people to persist beyond the session. Groups are important because they enable social ties to thicken, which means they’re especially useful now to mitigate the Brownian motion of sociality on the Internet.

Likewise, Facebook, Google Groups, Twitter, and the other dominant forms of “social software” (to use the term from 2003) are amazing at building social networks. At those sites you can jump into borderless networks, connecting to everyone else by some degree. That’s pretty awesome. But those sites do not have a much of a concept of a group. A group requires some form of membership, which entails some form of non-membership. Usually the membership process and the walls that that process forms are visible and explicit. This isn’t to say that groups have to have a selection committee and charge dues. A group can be widely open. But the members need to be able to say “Yeah, I’m part of that group,” even if that means only “I regularly participate in that open discussion over there.” A group is a real thing, more than the enumeration of its members. If all the members leave, we have to be able to say, “There’s no one in that group any more. Too bad.”

If the walls around the group don’t include and exclude the same people for each member, then it’s a network, not a group. Not all of your friends are my friends and vice versa. But everyone in the Chess Club is in the Chess Club. The Chess Club is a group. Your friends and my friends on Facebook are part of a social network. Not that’s there anything wrong with that.

Now, I realize in saying this I am merely expressing my Old Fartdom. “Why, in my day, there were groups and not all these little networks of people with their twittering and their facial books.” The evidence for this is the generational divide on email. Email remains my most important social software for all the reasons that The Kids have moved to Facebook: email goes to the people I choose, is slower, results in semantically sequential threads of call-and-response, and is archived. But I especially like email because mailing lists are crucial to my social and intellectual life. I have been on some for over twenty years. Most of what I know about the Internet comes from the lists I’m on. I’ve reconnected with some of my academic philosophical roots via a mailing list. Mailing lists are so important to me because they are online groups.

So it’s entirely possible, in fact it’s probable, that the Internet has not made a lot of progress supporting groups because our culture no longer values groups. We’ve gone from Bowling Alone to Twitch Bowls 300. Old-timers like me — even as we celebrate the rise of networks — should be permitted a tear to dampen our dry, furrowed skin.

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