Joho the BlogOctober 2010 - Page 3 of 4 - Joho the Blog

October 15, 2010

The Social Network: Disappointing

I’m a big fan of Aaron Sorkin, but I saw The Social Network last night and was quite disappointed.

First, some notes: I don’t think there are any spoilers in what I’m about to say, at least not beyond what you would read in a typical review. Second, I didn’t have a problem with how the movie presented the Internet; my reaction is not about that, because the movie really is not about that.

It’s not a bad movie, just disappointing, and a little long. Even the dialogue was way less interesting than what the glowing reviews had said, and what we’ve come to expect from the writer of the West Wing.

I had two major problems with the movie, both due directly to the writing. (The acting and editing were good. I also like the Trent Reznor score.)

First, the movie is cliched. It’s about the cool kids against the snobby frat kids, with the difference that the cool kids are the geeks. Predictable and boring. Also, I didn’t recognize what I know of Harvard in it, although I admittedly am in an odd corner of the place.

Second, I thought the portrayal of the main character was lazy and cowardly. The movie shows Mark Zuckerberg as affectless, arrogant, and without empathy or social graces. (Forget the cheap irony that was probably the original motivation for the movie: Oooh, the guy who invented the world-changing social networking site is not social.) The only explanation we’re given for his anti-social behavior is banal and silly, having to do with a couple of incidents that caused MZ some social class envy. That’s lazy. Then, at the very end, a two sentence re-framing of his character is presented that I think we were supposed to think is revelatory. But it wasn’t, at least for me. It contradicted everything the movie had led us to believe about MZ, and gives a non-sensical characterization unsupported by anything else in the movie. Honestly, when I heard it, I thought the movie-makers were just thinking about how to dodge getting sued by MZ.

By the way, I heard Sorkin say that the movie makes no judgments, and tells the story three different ways, in a Rashomon way. Baloney. In the movie there are two sets of plaintiffs and one defendant, but the movie presents a single view of what happened. In one of the two cases, we are left with some doubt about who was right. But that’s not exactly seeing the same events multiple times through different eyes, as in Rashomon.

(An early note to Oscars wagerers: Because I thought the script was disappointing, I am predicting that the movie will win at least best screenplay.)


October 14, 2010

It’s a small world

Jeez. I just took a break from working on the last chapter. The paragraph I’d just written mentioned Ethan Zuckerman’s work on how we might get past our smug homophily, followed by a brief reminder that there’s lots of value in having many weak ties. Knowledge disseminates and is retrievable through weak ties, and innovation is often spurred through such networks. I was thinking of adding something about Ronald Burt‘s work on the importance of “structural holes”, i.e., the places between the network clusters; Burt writes: “people who stand near the holes in social structure are at the highest risk of having good ideas.”

But, instead I stopped for a moment and checked Ethan’s blog. Sure enough, he’s got a substantial, brilliant post about the value of weak ties, Ronald Burt, and the dissemination of news.

Yet another great post from the Ethanator.

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The gear we own

From an email from Pew Internet about their latest study:

Cell phones – 85% of Americans now own a cell phone, with young adults leading the way (96% of 18-29 year olds now own a cell phone).

Desktop and laptop computers – Three quarters of Americans own a computer of some kind; laptop ownership has grown dramatically in recent years, while desktop ownership has declined slightly.

Mp3 players – Just under half of American adults own an mp3 player, a nearly five-fold increase from early 2005.

Game consoles – Console gaming devices like the Xbox and PlayStation are nearly as common as mp3 players, and are especially popular among parents and those under 50.

E-book readers and table computers – These devices are still in their early adopter phase, and are mostly popular with the affluent and highly educated.

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October 12, 2010

[2b2k] Last chapter underway?

I’ve been heads down writing — fairly obsessed with it, actually — trying to get a draft of my last chapter done before next week when I head out on two trips overseas with a day and a half in between.

It’s entirely possible that what I’m writing is wrong for a last chapter. That’s the problem with heads-down writing. I’m figuring that the one question the reader really wants answered at this point is: So, wiseguy, is the Internet making us stupid or not? I have addressed this in various forms throughout the book, mainly pointing out why it’s not a well-formed question. In this last chapter, I’m saying: Rather than trying to measure quantities about which we do not agree, let’s look at the new apparatus of knowledge. Is it an apparatus better suited to what smart people do?

That then leads me to acknowledge the falsity of technodeterminism, while still pointing to five properties of the Net anyone in our culture who spends time on the Net learns. They’re all very obvious, so I spend only a sentence or two on each:

  • Abundance. There is more available to us than we ever imagined back in the days of television and libraries.

  • Links. Ideas can be linked.

  • Permission-free. Even if you don’t know how to post, you know that much of what you see came from people like you. You also know that you can leave comments, leave ratings, and otherwise participate.

  • Public. There are certainly areas of the Net that are walled off. Nevertheless, the foundational experience of the Net is formed by what you can see. The Net is a vast public space within which exclusion of visitors or content is the exception.

  • Unresolved. The longer you spend on the Net, the more convinced you become that we are never all going to agree on anything.

I’m now going through each of them, talking about what they mean for knowledge.

I think I’ll have one more section to write after that, about improving the new apparatus of knowledge. But I’ll have to see.

Then I’ll have to see if what I’ve been writing is worth keeping. And what lyric did Arcade Fire just sing into my headphones? “I’m beginning to have my doubts, doubts about it.”

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[berkman] The MoveOn Effect

David Karpf [twitter], an assistant prof in comms at Rutgers U., is giving a Berkman Tuesday talk on “The MoveOn Effect: The Internet’s Impact on Political Activism.”

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.

David begins by noting that in 1999 he was the exec dir of the student arm of the Sierra Club. He ran into a guy early on who was doing e-petitions, which seemed ludicrously doomed. The guy turned out to be one of the founders of

David points to the recent Malcolm Gladwell article as an example of the pushback against the idea that the Net can change politics. But, David says, we’re looking at the wrong thing. We’ve been looking at e-petitions and weak ties. As Gladwell says, change takes more than that. David points to other recent nay-sayers, who say that we new elites the same as the old elites. “Clicktivism” doesn’t really change anything, says Micah White. But we’ve been ignoring the substantial organizational change that’s been going on.

David points to a set of organizations, including Progressive Change Campaign Committee (found Aaron Swartz is in the room), 1 Sky, Act Blue, Fix Congress First, Organizing for America, Campaign for America’s Future. and Daily Kos. The big changes are coming at this organizational level.

MoveOn is his main example. Found in 1998, founded by the couple that created the flying toasters screensaver. They emerged in 2002-3 as a vocal force in the anti-Iraq-War movement. They have 5M members — a member is someone who receives their emails. “MoveOn has changed the meaning of membership.” They raised $90M in the 2008 election. 933,800 volunteers volunteered 20M hours in the ’08 elections. They have 200+ local councils, 32 staffpeople, and zero offices.

They are not just doing emails. They do offline events, including house parties to deliberate about what their national agenda should be. They sponsor get-out-the-vote calls.

He also points to PCCC. It was started in Jan 2009, so you can’t explain it as first mover advantage. 450K members. $1.3M raised in 2009. Fourteen staff. No office space.It was built initially around the Norm Coleman-Al Franken contest. Instead of setting up an e-petition (as the DSCC wanted), the PCCC set up a donation system that had people donating to the Democratic Party every day that Coleman didn’t concede the election that he had lost. Since they have continued to take bold progressive stances.

Theda Skocpol in her 2003 book Diminished Democracies said that we need to look at the displacement of cross-class membership federations by professionally-managed advocacy. We’ve moved from membership to management. That changes how we Americans participate. Bruce Bimber found that this was a technologically-mediate transition. Membership in the 60s and 70s moved from going to meetings to writing checks (“armchair activism”) because managing massive mailing lists became affordable by non-profits.

David identifies three ideal types of organization. 1. MoveOn is hub-and-spoke. A core staff sends out emails. 2. DFA (from the old Dean campaign) is neo-federated. A national org has affiliates. DailyKos is an online community of interest that also holds annual f2f meetings.

David sees three broad shifts over time. Up through the 1960s, we had cross-class membership federations. 1970-2000s we had single-issue professional advocacy orgs. Now we have Internet-mediated issue generalists. The most important change to explain this has been in funding, from membership dues, to patrons, to online + patrons. A group like MoveOn is sustainable because it has (1) zero-cost scaling (costs about the same to send 5M emails as 5 emails), (2) A/B testing (tuning by seeing the effects of variations in the email), and (3) headline chasing (targeted, timely appeals).

Meanwhile, the old revenue streams are collapsing. “Prospect direct mail” is in freefall because people aren’t opening their snail mail if they don’t have to. Most people under 65 are paying their bills online. Also, targeted fundraising appeals yield money that cannot be used to organizational overhead. Existing advocacy orgs have high overhead costs.

To research this, David created a dummy gmail account and signed up for 70 progressive advocacy groups. In 6 months, he got 2,162 email alerts. About 250 were fund-raisers. Msgs from newer orgs asked far more often for money for specific campaigns, as opposed to asking for general support. The old orgs are applying their old techniques to the Net. The new groups are relying on small donations from many people. There were 202 requestes for e-petition signatures and 85 calls for direct action. MoveOn in the past 6 months sent out as many requests for local action as e-petition. After that it was to call Congress or donate to campaigns.

Overall, the Net’s effect on activism is not clicktivism. It’s not just asking for weak-tie petition clicking. They call to action. This is a new form of organizing. We’re seeing a generation shift here: the old orgs’ sunk infrastructure costs can’t transition to becoming a network org. This is disruption theory a la Clay Christensen. The revenue streams of the old orgs are beginning to collapse. This new type of advocacy groups, with their new types of membership and ways of interacting with their members, is undermining the old orgs. The Internet skeptics generally are missing this.

Q: How does this reconcile with what the Tea Partiers are doing? And how about the Republicans?
A: I did this research before the Tea Party. So, why aren’t there the same sorts of groups for conservatives? They’ve tried to create their own DailyKos, MoveOn, etc. Why is Red State no where near the scale of DailyKos? It’s due to out-party incentives. A Republican organizer said that it’s because it’s more fun storming the castle. The out-party is more likely to adopt the new technology. At the party network level, the new technologies that enter political campaigns are brought in by new political consultants. (See Amy Sullivan: Fire the consultants.) The Dems got new consultants after losing to Bush, and they brought in new tech. While the Reps were winning, they were continuing to use the old consultants. One the Dems gain control, the Tea Party starts. We need to figure out how big the Tea Party is new social movement activism, as opposed to TP as meme.

Q: What other structural differences have you seen how progressive organizations behave and conservative ones?
A: Think of DailyKos vs. Red State. The puzzle is: What do we do with our crazies? Their are extremists on both side. On the left, we identify crazies as 9-11 truthers. DK bans 9-11 truthers because Markos Moulitsas “didn’t want his site to appeal to the nut jobs.” The right has been more tolerant of its crazies, e.g., the birthers. Few of the big conservative blog sites are open to bloggers. And, usually, you need to register to be able to comment. One site only allows one hour of open registration every few months because they’re worried about comedy sites like Wonkette coming in and trolling.

Q: Fox tried to come up with a half hour show like The Daily Show but it was horrible. Why is the Left funnier?
A: Colbert: it’s because the left has reality as a straight man.
Q: Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are purposefully funny/humorous.
Q: Beck and Rush call themselves rodeo clowns to deflect criticism from the Left.

Q: Deval Patrick’s first campaign was beautiful: Green roots, net roots, etc. But he hasn’t governed the way that he ran.
A: [missed the answer. sorry.]

Q: Do you see one of your three ideal types becoming the paradigmatic one?
A: As Clay Shirky says in his Thinking the Unthinkable: Nothing will work but everything might. We will see the collapse of a major non-profit within the next two years, and then this will get the same attention that the newspapers are getting now. For now, multiple models. Which wins depends on how the tech develops, but if I had to bet, I’d say the neo-federated is promising because of the rise of mobile phones.

Q: [me] Why believe these new orgs have any effect except raising money? Has an epetition ever changed anything?
A: The aim of an epetition is to take a first action, which engages people. But compare the effect of MoveOn etc. to organizing ten or twenty years ago. Everything pales against the Civil Rights Movement, but that may be the wrong comparison, because it’s the one time that everything came together and mass action worked. A million-signature petition can make a diff, even though that’s 0.03% of the population. E.g., DailyKos leads to the YearlyKos event that helps build a movement. The Drinking Liberal local events have led to people running for local offices. This is an improvement over how it was ten years ago. It enables the small percentage of people who want to be engaged to be engaged more successfully.

Q: What’s the role of professional management? And how about bringing in new, young activists.
A: Political scientists talk about the interest group explosion in the 1970s. Skocpol’s point is that these new groups were of a different kind: from membership to professional-managed advocacy. When we think of online activists, we tend to think of young people, but the rooms are actually filled with people in their 40s-50s. There’s a generational lifecycle thing going on: there’s a spike of activism when people are students, and rise in 40-50s and on. Zack Exley talks about the tyranny of the annoying: in the old movements, the people who take over are the ones who want to pound the table and be a committee of one. Thanks to the Net making it easier to engage locally, it makes it easier to avoid the tyranny of the annoying.


October 11, 2010

Why it’s good to be boring on the Web

Casually and randomly click your way through the Web, and it’s as if you were to knock on the doors of random people around the world and were to see a startling set of stupidities, insults, and depravities.

Of course, if you actually were to knock on random doors and get to listen in on what’s going on in living rooms and bedrooms, you probably would be depressed. It’s even worse online because extremism — and not just in politics — drives up traffic.

That’s one reason why, despite the “Who cares what you had for breakfast?” crowd, it’s important that we’ve been filling the new social spaces — blogs, social networking sites, Twitter, messaging in all forms, shared creativity in every format — with the everyday and quotidian. When we don’t have to attract others by behaving outlandishly, we behave in the boring ways that make life livable. In so doing, we make the Net a better reflection of who we are.

And since we are taking the Net as the image of who we are, and since who we think we are is broadly determinative of who we become, this matters.


October 9, 2010

[2b2k] Once again, my writing lacks integrity

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article I don’t know what to do with about why integrity has become the main characteristic of business leadership. Read just about any of the business memoirs or books about leadership, and they all put integrity at the top of the list of what makes a person a leader. And they don’t mean “integrity” in the “I don’t take bribes” sense. Rather, they’re talking about a type of humble authenticity: Know who you are, don’t put on airs, don’t believe the butt-kissers who work for you.

Obviously integrity is a desirable characteristic, but it’s weird to put it at the pinnacle of leadership. It used to be about courage, resolution, and worlds like that. “Integrity” is like saying that what made Richard the Lion-Hearted a great leader was that he felt good about himself, or Churchill was a great leader because he was a generous tipper. So, I wondered how that happened, and came up with an hypothesis:

You read a book like Jack Welch’s memoirs and you feel bad for the guy. He’s a chemical engineer who becomes CEO of General Electric, and feels completely out of his depth. (That’s not what he says. It’s how I’m reading him.) He has to make decisions about everything from nuclear reactors to whether Leno or Letterman should get the Tonight Show. He can’t possibly know enough — modern corporations are too big to know — so he sees in himself an uncanny ability to pierce through the old assumptions and the BS. Integrity lets him see the truth. It also lets him eat the Hegelian cake Americans require of their leaders: A leader has to be someone special, but has to be just like us. Integrity lets you be special by seeing just how limited and ordinary you are. Perfect!

I keep trying to find places to put this idea. It comes with an entertaining reading of the Welch book. So, I opened Chapter 8, on decisions, with it. And then came back to it toward the end. Chapter 8 is supposed to be a second proof-of-the-pudding chapter (the first is on science) that asks if all the previous blather about ambiguous knowledge falls away when you have to make a hard yes-or-no decision. Or, is decision-making taking on network properties? After three weeks of writing, I thought maybe it worked. Its joints were wrapped in rhetorical duct tape, but maybe no one would notice.

I put the chapter aside for a week after finishing it, and then re-read it. Nope. It sucks.

I’ve spent the past 48 hours compulsively re-writing it, over and over, each time thinking that I see how I can make it work. I’ve outlined what I think it should say and I’ve outlined what it does say, and none of them are right.

So, I just went through it and tore out all of the integrity stuff. I’m left with a clearer argument with fewer problem areas. But I still don’t know if it works.


October 8, 2010

My type of wonkery

Harold Feld presents the legal argument against AT&T’s claim that if the FCC reclassifies the Internet under Title II of the Communications Act (so that the FCC can once again have the authority to regulate those who provide access to it), the FCC will be legally required to allow AT&T to take money from big companies to move their bits faster than yours. (Waiver: yes, I’m putting this prejudicially. I have a dog in this race … a big, friendly labradoodle called “our open Internet.”)

Anyway, Harold is an enjoyable writer, and makes the legal details as comprehensible as they’re ever likely to get for non-lawyers like me.

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Knight News Challenge getting ready for proposals

From their press release:

Miami — The fifth year of the Knight News Challenge, a media innovation contest funded and run by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, will open for entries on Oct 25, and for the first time will feature experimental categories: Mobile, Authenticity, Sustainability and Community.

“The use of new categories are an effort to harness and accelerate the entrepreneurial energy we are seeing in the field,” said John S. Bracken, Knight Foundation Director of Digital Media. “We have incorporated what we have learned over the first four years of the News Challenge to focus this year on four key issues.”

The Knight News Challenge seeks innovative techniques and technologies that advance the foundation’s goal of informing and engaging communities. In its first four years, $23 million has been awarded to 56 media innovators chosen from more than 10,000 entries.

The fifth year of the contest opens for entries Oct. 25 and closes Dec. 1. Individuals, schools, nonprofits, governments and businesses all may enter.

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October 7, 2010

[2b2k] Deadline looming

I’ve been working let’s say rather intently on getting Too Big to Know done in time for my Nov. 1 deadline. I have a concluding chapter to write, a fairly drastic re-write of Chapter 8 (on decisions), and then a run through of the whole thing. If I weren’t on the road for two weeks this month, I’d be a little more confident, but I think I’m actually in pretty good shape, so long as I can get Chapter 8 done. That chapter needs cutting, re-arranging, and re-focusing on its main point. If it comes together without too many tries over the next couple of days, then all will be well. Otherwise, ulp.

I also have an idea about how to write the final chapter. It won’t have new examples (I don’t think) or require much research, so it might go fairly quickly…again assuming that I don’t have to re-do it many times. I purposefully left this last chapter unplanned, because you never know what path a book will take. Now it’s time.

I’ve also been thinking about the subtitle. The publisher will have a very heavy say in it, so I’m not worrying about what the subtitle actually will be. Rather, it’s a good way to think about, well, the Twitter version of the book. You’d think I’d know that going in, but just as novelists sometimes say that the characters they invent can take over the story, nonfiction books can also have a narrative that develops itself.

Well, it will be a busy three weeks.

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