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February 28, 2011

Am I blocked or Not: Wisconsin version

From the Berkman Center:

The Herdict team is looking for help testing the hypothesis that the Wisconsin Capitol building guest wireless blocks Websense’s “advocacy” category. (Background here, and see the various links in those posts).

If you have friends/family/contacts/colleagues who might be in a position to help Herdict with this testing, please share the links above or point them to Herdict’s “am I blocked or not?” testing queue for the US — Many thanks!

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February 26, 2011

Has HarperCollins lost its mind or its soul?

HarperCollins has changed its agreement with the main distributor of e-books to libraries: e-books will now become inaccessible after 26 checkouts.

I understand publishers’ desire to limit ebook access so that selling one copy doesn’t serve the needs of the entire world. But think about what this particular DRM bomb does to libraries, one of the longest continuous institutions of civilization. Libraries exist not just to lend books but to guarantee their continuous availability throughout changes in culture and fashion. This new licensing scheme prevents libraries from accomplishing this essential mission.

It’s beyond ironic. Until now, libraries have in fact had to scale back on that mission because there isn’t enough space for all the physical books they’ve acquired over the years. So, they get rid of books that have fallen out of fashion or no longer seem important enough. Now that the digital revolution has so lowered the cost of storage that libraries can at last do far better at this culture-building mission, a major publisher has instituted the nightmare culture-killing license.

So, why do I say that HarperCollins has lost its soul instead of just criticizing it for this action? Because I don’t see how this scheme could make sense to a publisher unless the publisher had given up on books as a primary way we build a culture together. If you cared about books as vehicles of ideas and not just vehicles of commerce, you would have dismissed with contempt an idea that treats them as evanescent as chatter on a call-in show.

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Berkman Buzz

The weekly Berkman Buzz, as compiled by Rebekah Heacock:

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February 24, 2011

Google Chrome: The OS, the laptop, the browser

Klint Finley at ReadWriteWeb writes:

Google is bringing Web apps one step closer to having full desktop functionality. Today, it announced new functionality that allows apps from the Chrome Web Store to run in the background, even when all Chrome windows have been closed but the user hasn’t actually exited the browser. Why would you want to do this? A couple of reasons.

1. To enable hosted apps, such as calendars, to provide notifications without having to leave a window or tab open for the app.

2. To enable apps to load content in the background so that it’s instantly available when a user launches the app. For example, a dashboard with real-time information, or something like Mint.com that takes a while to update.

This brings Chrome the Browser one step closer to Chrome the OS … and if I were Google, I would not go much further than that. At least for now.

I say this as the recipient of one of the tens of thousands of CR-48 Chrome notebooks Google sent out over the past couple of months. (I strongly suspect it was sent to me by someone at Google Docs, because I spent a morning with them about a year ago talking about next steps for the product. It was an unpaid session [well, until now], and, as far as I can tell, what I said had no effect. Very interesting morning, though, from my point of view.)

The Chrome netbook comes with an early version of Google’s Chrome operating system installed. As many have pointed out, the hardware is a mix of pretty nice and totally sucks. The point of the distribution was not the hardware, but, rather, how well the OS works. Nevertheless, let me get the hardware comments out of the way. Positives: Fairly lightweight for a screen that large. Good battery life. It was free. Negatives: OMG the trackpad is frustratingly awful. The lettering on the keyboard is invisible except in full light. The mouse tracking speed cannot be slowed down enough. And because there is only one USB port, you can’t easily plug in both a mouse and a USB lamp to light the illegible keyboard. Anyway…

The key difference apparent to the user is that the Chrome OS is a fullscreen browser with no desktop underneath it. Everything is optimized for online work. That’s great for online work: The wifi connection is easy, setup overall was easy, it’s getting very good battery life even though wifi is on all the time, it starts up lightning fast, and it actually both goes to sleep and wakes up instantly when you close the lid. So, when you’re online, Chrome is terrific.

But I am not always online, and even when I am, I often want to use local apps. For example, there are some good text editors online, but they are not better than the copy of TextWrangler I have installed on my laptop. Furthermore, Google Docs has its strengths, but Pages, OpenOffice, LibreOffice, and even Word all are better at some important things. Much better. Why does it help me as a user not to be able to use the apps I want? Plus, I have many years of documents and other data on my computer (yes, multiply backed up); I’d have to move them all into the cloud to have them at my fingertips when using Chrome. But why would I want to go to all that trouble…except to use Chrome?

Chrome is like a visitor from the future when wireless connectivity is ubiquitous, but the available apps have been frozen since 1996. It is in that regard the worst of both time zones. Sure, the apps in the cloud will get better, but I am unconvinced that there will never ever be any app that I want to run locally. In the meantime, I’ve taken to using my CR-48 as the laptop I keep on our TV couch, so I can figure out where I’ve seen that actor before, which I suspect is less than Google hopes we’ll be doing with their shiny new operating system.

On the other hand, enabling Chrome the Browser to permit Web apps to work in the background is a brilliant idea for the here-and-now. We can continue to use our highly-evolved local apps, but still integrate cloud-based computing into the world we’re going to be in until creatures from the future blanket our land with wireless, open, broadband access to the Internet, or until our government comes up with policies to do so. (My money is on creatures from the future getting here first.)

[But, hey, Google, thanks for the free laptop, and I do admire your willingness to push the envelope.]

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February 22, 2011

Eszter Hargittai and Aaron Shaw are giving a Berkman lunchtime talk titled “The Internet Young Adults, and Political Engagement around the 2008 Elections.” It’s a collaborative work between Northwestern U (where Eszter is) and Berkman (where Aaron is). What did the Obama campaign mean for the Internet’s effect on engagement of young people?

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.

Research generally summarizes the story of youth’s engagement as a sad one: A downward trend over the past 50 years. Most of the previous research has suggested that the Net is a “weapon of the strong”: those from higher income levels and more social capital tend to make more and better use of the Net. But does the Net impact political engagement directly? Uniformly? What factors and processes matter more than others. There is little agreement on these questions in the literature so far.

They looked at four outcomes or models: 1. Online political cognitive engagement: How much info-seeking on the Net do you do about politics? 2. Civic engagement: Do you volunteer in the community. 3. Voting. 4. Political action more broadly defined.

Eszter gathered data from the U of Illinois in Chicago. It’s one of the more racially diverse campuses. She went to the only course required everyone on campus. (There are 86 different sections, so it was a lot of work to gather the data.) It was a paper-pencil survey, not online, because she did not want to worry about who has access to the Net and who is comfortable donig things on line. Of the 1,115 students, the research focused on the 1,000 who were eligible to vote in the 2008 election. About half are first generation college students, 11% African-American, 25% Hispanic. About 60% voted, compared to 62% nationally. Eszter and Aaron are not claiming this is representative of the nation. the controlled for partisanship, political interest, and political knowledge, using “pretty standard” ways of measuring this. She presents the data on the extent of their Net usage; everyone had already been online. [You’ll have to check the study for the actual data. I can’t possibly type that fast!]

1. Online political cognitive engagement. They looked at whether the kids are reading blogs, commenting on them, involved in online discussions, forwarding info, etc. About 40% visited blogs (etc.) on political topics, and 16% commented on them. Women were less likely to participate. Race and ethnicity and parental education didn’t seem to matter. Political capital (= interest in politics) and your Net skills are positively correlated.

2. Civic engagement. 81% had engaged in some form, 54% talked to friends or family about current events a few times a week or more, 33% have organized the event of a club or organization. [Again, I can’t keep up with all the data. I’m cherry-picking.] Gender doesn’t matter, but Asian Americans are more engaged, as are those who score higher on parental education, political capital, and online political engagement.

3. Voting. Race and ethnicity had a positive correlation with voting. Not parental education. Political capital and civic engagement both did. But online political cognitive measures did not. Neither did Net expertise/experience.

4. Political action, which includes everything from signing a petition to being a paid campaign worker. 65% had signed a petition. 22% had contacted a political official. 14% donated money. If you count any of those, 70% have engaged in political action. No correlation to gender, race/ethnicity, parental education But, there was a positive correlation with political capital, civic engagement, and Internet experiences (particularly the use of social networking sites, and skill).

Internet mattered for all of the outcomes, except for voting. Net skills seem to have enabled the social networking that is correlated with political action.

Conclusion: Simply being a Net user is not a direct factor; the relationships seems to be indirect and differential. And were there Obama effects? Only in the political action area, and there it was pretty minor and needs more investigation.

Q: Suppose you did a longitudinal study…?
A: That would be interesting. We actually have data on half of them about whether they voted in the gubernatorial election. I’d like to get funding to go back to the students.

Q: How can you get at what shifts in access have happened that might have spiked with the Obama effect providing an opportunity to engage? E.g., social media make it easier to send around petititions.
A: It’d be interesting to follow up on what’s going on at social network sites. We only asked if people checked other people’s status and updated their own.

Q: Net use doesn’t correlate to voting but not to political action?
A: Voting is a different type of political action. The people who vote tend to look slightly different than the people who engage in other forms of political action.

Q: How about people from out of state?
A: Almost all are from within Illinois.

Q: How active is the Deomcract Club at the U?
A: Good question.

Q: Did you look at local elections?
A: No.

Q: A study recently showed something like 85% of contributors to Wikipedia were male. Did you see anything similar with online political participation?
A: I (eszter) have been gathering nuanced data on Wikipedia participation, and it’s unbelievably gendered. Women are participating in political activity less, but the gap is much smaller than at Wikipedia. My research as shown that women contribute less content online [my phraseology — don’t blame Eszter!], even with fan fiction.

A: [me] Did you break this down by ideology, as well as by partisanship?
Q: We haven’t broken it out yet.

A: I would have thought that political engagement and voting would be on the same trajectory, with the same determinants. Do you have a theory about they they’re not?
A: I do think they’re qualitatively different in American society.

Q: What data do you wish you had?
A: We’re proud of this data. We have a ton of it. It’d be good to have more data about Internet engagement/behavior. We also don’t have media consumption data.

Q: What is more important for a vibrant democracy for these young people, voting or activism?
A: It’s not an either/or. The literature suggests both are important. Cf. Talking Together. Their data suggests there are lots of people who are talking together.

[I missed some questions. Sorry. Don’t forget these Tuesday lunch presentations are available online as webcasts.]

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[2b2k] Has the Internet killed our theory of medias effect on ideas and culture?

Heres a paragraph from the draft of the book Ive been working on. Its a draft, so contents are subject to settling during shipping.

…as revolution spread from Tunisia to Egypt at the start of 2011, a controversy arose about how much credit social media such as Facebook and Twitter ought to get. Malcolm Gladwell, the author of The Tipping Point, had written a New Yorker article in October 2010 arguing that social media are over-rated as tools of social change because they only enable “weak ties” among people, instead of the “strong ties” activists need in order to put themselves at risk. When some media and bloggers credited social media in the Mideast revolutions of 2011, Gladwell posted a two hundred word essay asserting that the influence of social media was “the least interesting fact.” Gladwells comments were a corrective to those who carelessly referred to the events as “Facebook revolutions” or “Twitter revolutions” as if they were the sole cause, but he also disputed those who thought social media played a significant role at all. Given Gladwells standing, and the fact that The Tipping Point is about the importance of social networks, his position surprised many. But, my point is not that Gladwell is mistaken although I think he is. Its that even if we do accept that social media played a role of some significance, its not at all clear what role they played. The more one looks at the question, the clearer it becomes that we dont even have an agreed-upon explanatory framework within which the question might be resolved. And this is true not only of questions touching the Internet. For example, a couple of months after the New Yorker ran the original Gladwell piece, it published an article by Louis Menand that wondered how to gauge the social and political effects of books such as Betty Friedans 1963 The Feminine Mystique. We look at social media at work in civil unrest and we wonder how much the media shape us? How does it happen? Does media influence have the same effects on all cultures? On all strata of society? How much of social unrest in general and in particular countries comes about as the result of having access to information? How much is the result of communication? Of sociality? If there were no social media, would the revolutions have happened, and, if so, how might they have been different?

As the Menand piece makes clear in its discussion of the effect of The Feminine Mystique, Silent Spring, and Unsafe at Any Speed, we used to think we knew at least part of how media influence ideas and policy. You write an important book, you go on Dick Cavett and Firing Line, and it changes minds and brings about changes. How? Well, um, it altered “the way we think about things” or some such phrase. We had a lot invested in the power of books.

Now, that theory seems not just hopelessly over-simplified, but wrong. I dont know if thats because single cultural items no longer have the impact that they once did, or if they never did but now we can see how influence actually spreads by following links and through up-and-coming tools such as the Berkman Centers MediaCloud. Or both. Or neither.

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February 20, 2011

[2b2k] Public data and metadata, Google style

I’m finding Google Lab’s Dataset Publishing Language (DSPL) pretty fascinating.

Upload a set of data, and it will do some semi-spiffy visualizations of it. (As Apryl DeLancey points out, Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viegas now work for Google, so if they’re working on this project, the visualizations are going to get much better.) More important, the data you upload is now publicly available. And, more important than that, the site wants you to upload your data in Google’s DSPL format. DSPL aims at getting more metadata into datasets, making them more understandable, integrate-able, and re-usable.

So, let’s say you have spreadsheets of “statistical time series for unemployment and population by country, and population by gender for US states.” (This is Google’s example in its helpful tutorial.)

  • You would supply a set of concepts (“population”), each with a unique ID (“pop”), a data type (“integer”), and explanatory information (“name=population”, “definition=the number of human beings in a geographic area”). Other concepts in this example include country, gender, unemployment rate, etc. [Note that I’m not using the DSPL syntax in these examples, for purposes of readability.]

  • For concepts that have some known set of members (e.g., countries, but not unemployment rates), you would create a table — a spreadsheet in CSV format — of entries associated with that concept.

  • If your dataset uses one of the familiar types of data, such as a year, geographical position, etc., you would reference the “canonical concepts” defined by Google.

  • You create a “slice” or two, that is, “a combination of concepts for which data exists.” A slice references a table that consists of concepts you’ve already defined and the pertinent values (“dimensions” and “metrics” in Google’s lingo). For example, you might define a “countries slice” table that on each row lists a country, a year, and the country’s population in that year. This table uses the unique IDs specified in your concepts definitions.

  • Finally, you can create a dataset that defines topics hierarchically so that users can more easily navigate the data. For example, you might want to indicate that “population” is just one of several characteristics of “country.” Your topic dataset would define those relations. You’d indicate that your “population” concept is defined in the topic dataset by including the “population topic” ID (from the topic dataset) in the “population” concept definition.

When you’re done, you have a data set you can submit to Google Public Data Explorer, where the public can explore your data. But, more important, you’ve created a dataset in an XML format that is designed to be rich in explanatory metadata, is portable, and is able to be integrated into other datasets.

Overall, I think this is a good thing. But:

  • While Google is making its formats public, and even its canonical definitions are downloadable, DSPL is “fully open” for use, but fully Google’s to define. Having the 800-lbs gorilla defining the standard is efficient and provides the public platform that will encourage acceptance. And because the datasets are in XML, Google Public Data Explorer is not a roach motel for data. Still, it’d be nice if we could influence the standard more directly than via an email-the-developers text box.

  • Defining topics hierarchically is a familiar and useful model. I’m curious about the discussions behind the scenes about whether to adopt or at least enable ontologies as well as taxonomies.

  • Also, I’m surprised that Google has not built into this standard any expectation that data will be sourced. Suppose the source of your US population data is different from the source of your European unemployment statistics? Of course you could add links into your XML definitions of concepts and slices. But why isn’t that a standard optional element?

  • Further (and more science fictional), it’s becoming increasingly important to be able to get quite precise about the sources of data. For example, in the library world, the bibliographic data in MARC records often comes from multiple sources (local cataloguers, OCLC, etc.) and it is turning out to be a tremendous problem that no one kept track of who put which datum where. I don’t know how or if DSPL addresses the sourcing issue at the datum level. I’m probably asking too much. (At least Google didn’t include a copyright field as standard for every datum.)

Overall, I think it’s a good step forward.

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February 19, 2011

Berkman Buzz

The weekly Berkman Buzz, as compiled by Rebekah Heacock

  • Berkman community members suggest questions for Secretary Clinton in advance of her “Internet freedom” speech: link

  • Ethan Zuckerman posts his suggestion for Secretary Clinton’s entire speech: link

  • Doc Searls is ready for the live web: link

  • Dan Gillmor reviews Apple’s new subscription model: link

  • Weekly Global Voices: “Special Coverage: Bahrain Protests 2011″: link

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February 18, 2011

National Broadband Map: What the incumbents hath failed to wrought (wring?)

The National Broadband Map is now available. We had wanted to bask in the sunlight provided by the incumbent access providers, but instead we just got freckles. Want to laugh like a broken-hearted clown? View only the places that have fiber to the home.

The map was controversial from its inception, since it at least initially was relying on data coming from parties interested in exaggerating the extent of coverage. (I interviewed Steve Rosenberg at the FCC about his agencies contribution to it, in November 2009.) It does not link to its sources. It did not list my access provider (RCN) as available where I live. Also, the map is very clunky to manipulate. (Hint: Turn off all overlays until you zoom into where you want to see.) (Harold Feld provides a balanced perspective.)

Now want to cry like a generation watching its future slip away? The Republicans seem set on throwing The Master Switch to turn the Internet into a corporate content delivery system. Let your Senators know that you want the Internet to remain the engine of innovation and a public square for free speech.

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GlobalVoices live from Bahrain

GlobalVoices [twitter:globalvoices] is all over the Bahrainian protests:

Starting with our coverage of the Tunisian Revolution, Global Voices Online was one of the few media outlets following the story from its inception. GV authors have even become directly involved with the rebuilding of their country. During the #Jan25 Egyptian Revolution, GV authors were breaking through information blockades by reporting the events on the ground as the Egyptian government was switching the internet off. And now as protests begin to gather strength in Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain, Global Voices will be there to give you the firsthand accounts of citizen media journalists.

We invite you to follow our special coverage pages on Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain, and the rest of our Global Voices articles as we follow and amplify the voices of citizen media from around the world!

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