Joho the Blog » culture

January 29, 2014

San Francisco and London

Here are two old films of city streets. (Thank you, Andrew Weinberger! And, yes, he is my brother.)

San Francisco, 1906:

London, 1927, in color, thanks to Claude Friese-Greene :

(Wikipedia explains that Friese-Greene exposed each alternate frame through two different color lenses.)

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January 27, 2014

A gift from God

I know I’m late to the love fest, but I’ve been under the flu. I read Pope Francis’ Message for World Communication Day when it was issued on Jan. 24, and I only get happier upon re-reading it.

NOTE please that I am outside of my comfort zone in this posting, for two reasons. First, I am not a Christian and I know I may be misreading the Pope’s words. Second, I am going to evaluate and expound on what a Pope says. Chutzpah* has a new poster boy! So, please think of this only as me trying to make personal sense of a message that I find profoundly hopeful. *[The joke this links to is not really about chutzpah, but it's a pretty good joke.]


The first thing to note are the ways the message refuses to go wrong. The Catholic Church put the “higher” in “hierarchy,” so it’d be understandable if it viewed the Internet as a threat to its power. Or as a source of sinful temptation. Because it’s both of those things. The Pope might even have seen the Internet quite positively as a powerful communication medium for getting out the Church’s message.

But he doesn’t. He sees the Internet as “Communication at the Service of an Authentic Culture of Encounter,” as the post’s subtitle puts it. This is because he views the Internet not within the space of communication, but within the despair of a fragmented world. Not only are there vast inequalities, but these inequalities are literally before our eyes:

Often we need only walk the streets of a city to see the contrast between people living on the street and the brilliant lights of the store windows. We have become so accustomed to these things that they no longer unsettle us.

Traditional media can show us that other world, but we need something more. We need to be unsettled. “The internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity,” Pope Francis says, and then adds a remarkable characterization:

This is something truly good, a gift from God.

Not: The Internet is a source of temptations to be resisted. Not: The Internet is just the latest over-hyped communication technology, and remember when we thought telegraphs would bring world peace? Not: The Internet is merely a technology and thus just another place for human nature to reassert itself. Not: The Internet is just a way for the same old powers to extend their reach. Not: The Internet is an opportunity to do good, but be wary because we can also do evil with it. It may be many of those. But first: The Internet — its possibilities for encounter and solidarity — is truly good. The Internet is a gift from God.

This is not the language I would use. I’m an agno-atheistical Jew who lives in solidarity with an Orthodox community. (Long story.) But I think – you can never tell with these cross-tradition interpretations – that the Pope’s words express the deep joy the Internet brings me. “This is not to say that certain problems do not exist,” the Pope says in the next paragraph, listing the dangers with a fine concision. But still: The Internet is truly good. Why?

For the Pope, the Internet is an opportunity to understand one another by hearing one another directly. This understanding of others, he says, will lead us to understand ourselves in the context of a world of differences:

If we are genuinely attentive in listening to others, we will learn to look at the world with different eyes and come to appreciate the richness of human experience as manifested in different cultures and traditions.

This will change our self-understanding as well, without requiring us to abandon our defining values:

We will also learn to appreciate more fully the important values inspired by Christianity, such as the vision of the human person, the nature of marriage and the family, the proper distinction between the religious and political spheres, the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, and many others.

(This seems to me to be a coded sentence, with meanings not readily apparent to those outside the fold. Sorry if I’m misunderstanding its role in the overall posting.)

The Pope does not shy away from the difficult question this idea raises, and pardon me for having switched the order of the following two sentences:

What does it mean for us, as disciples of the Lord, to encounter others in the light of the Gospel? How…can communication be at the service of an authentic culture of encounter?

That is (I think), how can a Catholic engage with others who deny beliefs that the Catholic holds with all the power of faith? (And this is obviously not a question only for Catholics.) The Pope gives a beautiful answer: we should “see communication in terms of ‘neighbourliness’.”

“Communication” as the transferring of meaning is a relatively new term. The Pope’s answer asks us to bring it back from its abstract understanding. Certainly the Pope’s sense takes “communication” out of the realm of marketing that sees it as the infliction of a message on a market. It also enriches it beyond the information science version of communication as the moving of an encoded message through a medium. (Info science of course understands that its view is not the complete story.) It instead looks at communication as something that humans do within a social world:

Those who communicate, in effect, become neighbours. The Good Samaritan not only draws nearer to the man he finds half dead on the side of the road; he takes responsibility for him. Jesus shifts our understanding: it is not just about seeing the other as someone like myself, but of the ability to make myself like the other. Communication is really about realizing that we are all human beings, children of God.

From my point of view [more here, here, and here], the problem with our idea of communication is that it assumes it’s the overcoming of apartness. We imagine individuals with different views of themselves and their world who manage to pierce their solitude by spewing out some sounds and scribbles. Communication! But, those sounds and scribbles only work because they occur within a world that is already shared, and we only bother because the world we share and those we share it with matter to us. Communication implies not isolation and difference but the most profound togetherness and sameness imaginable. Or, as I wouldn’t put it, we are all children of G-d.

Then Pope Francis gets to his deeper critique, which I find fascinating: “Whenever communication is primarily aimed at promoting consumption or manipulating others, we are dealing with a form of violent aggression…” And “Nowadays there is a danger that certain media so condition our responses that we fail to see our real neighbour.” The primary threat to the Internet, then, is to treat it as if it were a traditional medium that privileges the powerful and serves their interests. Holy FSM!

Pope Francis then goes on to draw the deeper conclusion he has led us to: the threat isn’t fundamentally that the old media will use the Net for their old purposes. The actual threat is considering the Internet to be a communications medium at all. “It is not enough to be passersby on the digital highways, simply ‘connected’; connections need to grow into true encounters.”

The impartiality of media is merely an appearance; only those who go out of themselves in their communication can become a true point of reference for others.

The most basic image we have of how communication works is wrong: messages do not simply move through media. Rather, in the Pope’s terms, they are acts of engagement. This is clear in face-to-face communication among neighbors, and it seems clear to me on the Net: A tweet that no one retweets goes silent because its recipients have chosen not to act as its medium. A page that no one links to is only marginally on the Web because its recipients have chosen not to create a new link (a channel or medium) that incorporates that page more deeply into the network. The recipient-medium distinction fails on the Net, and the message-medium distinction fails on the Web.

Now, this does not mean that Internet communication is all about people always encountering one another as neighbors. Not hardly. So the Pope’s post then considers how Christians can engage with others on the Net without simply broadcasting their beliefs. Here his Catholic particularity starts to shape his vision in a way that differentiates it from my own. He sees the Internet as “a street teeming with people who are often hurting, men and women looking for salvation or hope,” whereas I would probably have begun with something about joy. (I’m pointing out a difference, not criticizing!)

Given the tension between his belief that faith has a way to alleviate the pain he perceives and his desire for truly mutual engagement, he talks about “Christian witness.” I don’t grasp the nuances of this concept (“We are called to show that the Church is the home of all” – er, no thank you), but I do appreciate the Pope’s explicit contrasting Christian witness with “bombarding people with religious messages.” Rather, he says (quoting his predecessor), it’s about

… our willingness to be available to others “by patiently and respectfully engaging their questions and their doubts as they advance in their search for the truth and the meaning of human existence.”

Since that seems to imply (I think) a dialogue in which one side assumes superiority and refuses the possibility of changing, the new Pope explains that

To dialogue means to believe that the “other” has something worthwhile to say, and to entertain his or her point of view and perspective. Engaging in dialogue does not mean renouncing our own ideas and traditions, but the claim that they alone are valid or absolute.

The Pope is dancing here. He’s dancing, I believe, because he is adopting the language of communication. If the role of the Catholic is to engage in dialogue, then we are plunged into the problems of the world’s plural beliefs. We western liberals like to think that in an authentic dialogue, both sides are open to change, but the Pope does not want to suggest that Catholics put their faith up for grabs. So, the best he can do is say that the “other’s” viewpoint be “entertained” and treated as worthwhile…although apparently not worthwhile enough to be adopted by the faithful Catholic.

There are two points important for me to make right now. First, I’m not carping about the actual content. This sort of pluralism (or whatever label you want to apply) takes the pressure off a world that simply cannot survive absolutism. So, thank you, Pope Francis! Second, I personally think it’s bunk to insist that for a dialogue to be “authentic” both sides have to be open to change. Such an insistence comes from a misunderstanding about how understanding works. So while I personally would prefer that everyone carry a mental reservation that appends “…although I might be wrong” to every statement,* I don’t have a problem with the Pope’s formulation of what an authentic Christian dialogue looks like. *[I simply don't know the Catholic Church's position on faith and doubt.]

I find this all gets much simpler – you get a nice walk instead of a dance – if you stick with the program announced in the Pope’s post’s subtitle: dethroning communication and putting it into the service of neighborliness. I believe the Pope’s vision of the Net as a place where neighbors can help one another lovingly and mercifully gives us a better way to frame the Net and the opportunity it presents. I assume his talk of “Christian witness” and becoming “a true point of reference for others” also gets around the “dialoguing” difficulty.

In fact, the whole problem recedes if you drop all language of communication from the Pope’s message. For example, when the Pope says the faithful should “dialogue with people today … to help them encounter Christ,” the hairs on my Jewish pate go up; if there’s one thing I don’t want to do, it’s to dialogue with a Christian who wants to help me encounter Christ. Framing the Net as being about communication (or information, for that matter) leads us back into the incompatible ideas of truth we encounter. But if we frame the Internet as being about people being human to one another, people being neighbors, the differences in belief are less essential and more tolerable. Neighbors manifest love and mercy. Neighbors find value in theirs differences. Neighbors first, communicators on occasion and preferably with some beer or a nice bottle of wine.

Neighbors first. I take that as the Pope’s message, and I think it captures the gift the Internet gives us. It is also makes clear the challenge. The Net of course poses challenges to our souls or consciences, to our norms and our expectations, to our willingness to accept others into our hearts, but also a challenge to our understanding: Stop thinking about the Net as being about communication. Start thinking about it as a place where we can choose to be more human to one another.

That I can say Amen to.

 


I apologize for I am forcing the Pope’s comments into my own frame of understanding. I am happy to have that frame challenged. I ask only that you take me as, well, your neighbor.

 


In a note from the opposite end of the spectrum, Eszter Hargittai has posted an op-ed. You probably known Eszter as one of the most respected researchers into the skills required to succeed with the Internet – no, not everyone can just waltz onto the Net and benefit equally from it – and she is not someone who finds antisemitism everywhere she looks. What’s going on in Hungary is scary. Read her op-ed.

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January 16, 2014

Some sources on Snowden and the NSA

Axel Arnbak has aggregated some papers about Snowden and the NSA revelations that you might find useful. It nicely does not include only US sources and interests.

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January 12, 2014

McGeveran’s Law of Friction

William McGeveran [twitter:BillMcGev] has written an article for University of Minnesota Law School that suggests how to make “frictionless sharing” well-behaved. He defines frictionless sharing as “disclosing “individuals’ activities automatically, rather than waiting for them to authorize a particular disclosure.” For example:

…mainstream news websites, including the Washington Post, offer “social reading” applications (“apps”) in Facebook. After a one- time authorization, these apps send routine messages through Facebook to users’ friends identifying articles the users view.

Bill’s article considers the pros and cons:

Social media confers considerable advantages on individuals, their friends, and, of course, intermediaries like Spotify and Facebook. But many implementations of frictionless architecture have gone too far, potentially invading privacy and drowning useful information in a tide of meaningless spam.

Bill is not trying to build walls. “The key to online disclosures … turns out to be the correct amount of friction, not its elimination.” To assess what constitutes “the correct amount” he offers an heuristic, which I am happy to call McGeveran’s Law of Friction: “It should not be easier to ‘share’ an action online than to do it.” (Bill does not suggest naming the law after him! He is a modest fellow.)

One of the problems with the unintentional sharing of information are “misclosures,” a term he attributes to Kelly Caine.

Frictionless sharing makes misclosures more likely because it removes practical obscurity on which people have implicitly relied when assessing the likely audience that would find out about their activities. In other words, frictionless sharing can wrench individuals’ actions from one context to another, undermining their privacy expectations in the process.

Not only does this reveal, say, that you’ve been watching Yoga for Health: Depression and Gastrointestinal Problems (to use an example from Sen. Franken that Bill cites), it reveals that fact to your most intimate friends and family. (In my case, the relevant example would be The Amazing Race, by far the worst TV I watch, but I only do it when I’m looking for background noise while doing something else. I swear!) Worse, says Bill, “preference falsification” — our desire to have our known preferences support our social image — can alter our tastes, leading to more conformity and less diversity in our media diets.

Bill points to other problems with making social sharing frictionless, including reducing the quality of information that scrolls past us, turning what could be a useful set of recommendations from friends into little more than spam: “…friends who choose to look at an article because I glanced at it for 15 seconds probably do not discover hidden gems as a result.”

Bill’s aim is to protect the value of intentionally shared information; he is not a hoarder. McGeveran’s Law thus tries to add in enough friction that sharing is intentional, but not so much that it gets in the way of that intention. For example, he asks us to imagine Netflix presenting the user with two buttons: “Play” and “Play and Share.” Sharing thus would require exactly as much work as playing, thus satisfying McGeveran’s Law. But having only a “Play” button that then automatically shares the fact that you just watched Dumb and Dumberer distinctly fails the Law because it does not “secure genuine consent.” As Bill points out, his Law of Friction is tied to the technology in use, and thus is flexible enough to be useful even as the technology and its user interfaces change.

I like it.

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January 8, 2014

What blogging was

At a recent Fellows Hour at the Berkman Center the topic was something like “Whatever happened to blogging?,” with the aim of thinking about how Berkman can take better advantage of blogging as a platform for public discussion. (Fellow Hours are private. No, this is not ironic.) They asked me to begin with some reflections on what blogging once was, because I am old. Rather than repeating what I said, here are some thoughts heavily influenced by the discussion.

And an important preface: What follows is much more of a memoir than a history. I understand that I’m reporting on how blogging looked to someone in a highly privileged position. For example, the blogosphere (remember when that was word?) as I knew it didn’t count LiveJournal as a blogging service, I think because it wasn’t “writerly” enough, and because of demographic differences that themselves reflect several other biases.

 


I apparently began blogging in 1999, which makes me early to the form. But, I didn’t take to it, and it was only on Nov. 15, 2001 that I began in earnest (blogging every day for twelve years counts as earnest, right?), which puts me on the late edge of the first wave, I believe. Blogging at that point was generating some interest among the technorati, but was still far from mainstream notice. Or, to give another measure, for the first year or so, I was a top 100 blogger. (The key to success: If you can’t compete on quality, redefine your market down.)

Blogging mattered to us more deeply than you might today imagine. I’d point to three overall reasons, although I find it not just hard but even painful to try to analyze that period.

1. Presence. I remember strolling through the vendor exhibits at an Internet conference in the mid 1990s. It seemed to be a solid wall of companies large and small each with the same pitch: “Step into our booth and we’ll show you how to make a home page in just 3 minutes.” Everyone was going to have a home page. I wish that had worked out. But even those of us who did have one generally found them a pain in the neck to update; FTPing was even less fun then than it is now.

When blogs came along, they became the way we could have a Web presence that enabled us to react, respond, and provoke. A home page was a painting, a statue. My blog was me. My blog was the Web equivalent of my body. Being-on-the-Web was turning out to be even more important and more fun than we’d thought it would be.

2. Community. Some of us had been arguing from the beginning of the Web that the Web was more a social space than a publishing, informational or commercial space — “more” in the sense of what was driving adoption and what was making the Web the dominant shaping force of our culture. At the turn of the millennium there was no MySpace (2003) and no Facebook (2004). But there was a blogging. If blogging enabled us to create a Web presence for ourselves, blogging was also self-consciously about connecting those presences into a community. (Note that such generalizations betray that I am speaking blindly from personal experience.)

That’s why blogrolls were important. Your blogroll was a list of links to the bloggers you read and engaged with. It was a way of sending people away from your site into the care of someone else who would offer up her own blogroll. Blogrolls were an early social network.

At least among my set of bloggers, we tried to engage with one another and to do so in ways that would build community. We’d “retweet” and comment on other people’s posts, trying to add value to the discussion. Of course not everyone played by those rules, but some of us had hope.

And it worked. I made friendships through blogging that maintain to this day, sometimes without ever having been in the same physical space.

(It says something about the strength of our community that it was only in 2005 that I wrote a post titled No, I’m not keeping up with your blog. Until that point, keeping up was sort of possible.)

3. Disruption. We were aware that the practice of blogging upset many assumptions about who gets to speak, how we speak, and who is an authority. Although blogging is now taken for granted at best and can seem quaint at worst, we thought we were participating in a revolution. And we were somewhat right. The invisibility of the effects of blogging — what we take for granted — is a sign of the revolution’s success. The changes are real but not as widespread or deep as we’d hoped.

Of course, blogging was just one of mechanisms for delivering the promise of the Net that had us so excited in the first place. The revolution is incomplete. It is yet deeper than we usually acknowledge.


To recapture some of the fervor, it might be helpful to consider what blogging was understood in contrast to. Here are some of the distinctions discussed at the time.

Experts vs. Bloggers. Experts earned the right to be heard. Bloggers signed up for a free account somewhere. Bloggers therefore add more noise than signal to the discussion. (Except: Much expertise has migrated to blogs, blogs have uncovered many experts, and the networking of bloggy knowledge makes a real difference.)

Professionals vs. Amateurs. Amateurs could not produce material as good as professionals because professionals have gone through some controlled process to gain that status. See “Experts vs. Bloggers.”

Newsletters vs. Posts. Newsletters and ‘zines (remember when that was a word?) lowered the barrier to individuals posting their ideas in a way that built a form of Web presence. Blogs intersected uncomfortably with many online newsletters (including mine). Because it was assumed that a successful blog needed new posts every day or so, content for blogs tended to be shorter and more tentative than content in newsletters.

Paid vs. Free. Many professionals simply couldn’t understand how or why bloggers would work for free. It was a brand new ecosystem. (I remember during an interview on the local Boston PBS channel having to insist repeatedly that, no, I really really wasn’t making any money blogging.)

Good vs. Fast. If you’re writing a couple of posts a day, you don’t have time to do a lot of revising. On the other hand, this made blogging more conversational and more human (where “human” = fallible, imperfect, in need of a spelpchecker).

One-way vs. Engaged. Writers rarely got to see the reaction of their readers, and even more rarely were able to engage with readers. But blogs were designed to mix it up with readers and other bloggers: permalinks were invented for this very purpose, as were comment sections, RSS feeds, etc.

Owned vs. Shared. I don’t mean this to refer to copyright, although that often was an important distinction between old media and blogs. Rather, in seeing how your words got taken up by other bloggers, you got to see just how little ownership writers have ever had over their ideas. If seeing your work get appropriated by your readers made you uncomfortable, you either didn’t blog or you stopped up your ears and covered your eyes so you could simulate the experience of a mainstream columnist.

Reputation vs. Presence. Old-style writing could make your reputation. Blogging gave you an actual presence. It was you on the Web.

Writing vs. Conversation. Some bloggers posted without engaging, but the prototypical blogger treated a post as one statement in a continuing conversation. That often made the tone more conversational and lowered the demand that one present the final word on some topic.

Journalists vs. Bloggers. This was a big topic of discussion. Journalists worried that they were going to be replaced by incompetent amateurs. I was at an early full-day discussion at the Berkman Center between Big Time Journalists and Big Time Bloggers at which one of the bloggers was convinced that foreign correspondents would be replaced by bloggers crowd-sourcing the news (except this was before Jeff Howe [twitter: crowdsourcing] had coined the term “crowd-sourcing”). It was very unclear what the relationship between journalism and blogging would be. At this meeting, the journalists felt threatened and the bloggers suffered a bad case of Premature Triumphalism.

Objectivity vs.Transparency Journalists were also quite concerned about the fact that bloggers wrote in their own voice and made their personal points of view known. Many journalists — probably most of them — still believe that letting readers know about their own political stances, etc., would damage their credibility. I still disagree.

I was among the 30 bloggers given press credentials at the 20042005 Democratic National Convention — which was seen as a milestone in the course of blogging’s short history — and attended the press conference for bloggers put on by the DNC. Among the people they brought forward (including not-yet-Senator Obama) was Walter Mears, a veteran and Pulitzer-winning journalist, who had just started a political blog for the Associated Press. I asked who he was going to vote for, but he demurred because then how could we trust his writing? I replied something like, “Then how will we trust your blog?” Transparency is the new objectivity, or so I’ve been told.

It is still the case that for the prototypical blog, it’d be weird not to know where the blogger stands on the issues she’s writing about. On the other hand, in this era of paid content, I personally think it’s especially incumbent on bloggers to be highly explicit not only about where they are starting from, but who (if anyone) is paying the bills. (Here’s my disclosure statement.)

 


For me, it was Clay Shirky’s Power Law post that rang the tocsin. His analysis showed that the blogosphere wasn’t a smooth ball where everyone had an equal voice. Rather, it was dominated by a handful of sites that pulled enormous numbers, followed by a loooooooooong tail of sites with a few followers. The old pernicious topology had reasserted itself. We should have known that it would, and it took a while for the miserable fact to sink in.

Yet there was hope in that long tail. As Chris Anderson pointed out in a book and article, the area under the long tail is bigger than the area under the short head. For vendors, that means there’s lots of money in the long tail. For bloggers that means there are lots of readers and conversationalists under the long tail. More important, the long tail of blogs was never homogenous; the small clusters that formed around particular interests can have tremendous value that the short head can never deliver.

So, were we fools living in a dream world during the early days of blogging? I’d be happy to say yes and be done with it. But it’s not that simple. The expectations around engagement, transparency, and immediacy for mainstream writing have changed in part because of blogs. We have changed where we turn for analysis, if not for news. We expect the Web to be easy to post to. We expect conversation. We are more comfortable with informal, personal writing. We get more pissed off when people write in corporate or safely political voices. We want everyone to be human and to be willing to talk with us in public.

So, from my point of view, it’s not simply that the blogosphere got so big that it burst. First, the overall media landscape does look more like the old landscape than the early blogosphere did, but at the more local level – where local refers to interests – the shape and values of the old blogosphere are often maintained. Second, the characteristics and values of the blogosphere have spread beyond bloggers, shaping our expectations of the online world and even some of the offline world.

Blogs live.

 


[The next day:] Suw Charman-Anderson’s comment (below) expresses beautifully much of what this post struggles to say. And it’s wonderful to hear from my bloggy friends.

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December 27, 2013

A gift of Schiff

I know it’s the day after the day after Christmas, but I’m still going to give you a gift. A gift of Schiff.

I heard Andras Schiff on the radio a couple of days ago and it reminded me how much I’ve enjoyed his discussions of Beethoven’s piano sonatas before he’s performed them. He plays with passion but has an analytic understanding of the compositions. And, no, I’m not sure why I used “but” as the conjunction in that sentence.

Anyway, you can download the lectures here, thanks to The Guardian. (Thank you, The Guardian!)

Schiff said on the radio the other day that as he gets older, his understanding increases but his technical ability decreases. It makes me hope that we get some software that lets a master like him manipulate musical notation to produce a digital version of the performance that he would have liked to be able to give. Or will it turn out that there are so many variables for how you strike a note and string them together that such software is like wishing that Meryl Streep could instruct a digitizal avatar to act as well as she does?

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December 19, 2013

Rights, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and Ducks

So, some guy on a TV show I never saw said some stuff I don’t agree with about homosexuality. He thinks it’s a sin akin to a whole bunch of other sex-related sins. After the affair blew up, he responded, “I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me. We are all created by the Almighty and like Him, I love all of humanity.” In the original interview he also described his experience as “white trash” working alongside African-Americans, saying that he never saw them mistreated. I believe him. He never saw that. Ok.

I don’t much care about the details of the incident, so if you want to tell me that I’m not understanding the horribleness of what he said, I’m not going to argue with you. I really haven’t researched it. But the debate is irking me.

I am reading too many of my compatriots — and, by the way, welcome to marriage equality, New Mexico! — saying that it was ok for A&E to fire Phil Robertson (the Duck Dynasty guy in question) because the First Amendment constrains the actions only of the government. So, I assume A&E had every legal and Constitutional right to fire Robertson for what he said.

So what? The question isn’t what A&E is allowed to do and what the First Amendment forbids. The question is: What makes this country a better place in which to live? Do we want to live in a place where you can’t state your opinion without worrying that you may be fired? How much variance from the orthodoxy are we willing to permit? And, yes, I feel the same way about not buying from a local store that has a political sign in its window that you disagree with. Your Republican hardware store owner has a right to make a living!

Do we really think America is better if the many people who think homosexuality is a sin are forbidden from saying so? The ironic revenge of Don’t ask, don’t tell?

Jeez. We need some room for disagreement here!


Just to anticipate the comments: Yes, I would feel the same way if he had said, “Everyone knows the Jews own the banks.” And, yes, there are things he could say that would make him so toxic that I’d agree that the network should fire him. For example, if he had threatened violence, or had used language so inflammatory that it could lead to violence. There are lines. We’re just drawing them wrong. IMO.

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December 3, 2013

[berkman] Jérôme Hergeux on the motives of Wikipedians

Jérôme Hergeux is giving a Berkman lunch talk on “Cooperation in a peer prodiuction economy: experimental evidence from Wikipedia.” He lists as co-authors: Yann Algan, Yochai Benkler, and Mayo Fuster-Morell.

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.

Jérôme explains the broader research agenda behind the paper. People are collaborating on the Web, sometimes on projects that compete with or replace major products from proprietary businesses and institutions. Standard economic theory doesn’t have a good way of making sense of this with its usual assumptions of behavior guided by perfect rationality and self-interest. Instead, Jérôme will look at Wikipedia where people are not paid and their contributions have no signaling value on the labor market. (Jérôme quotes Kizor: “The problem with Wikipedia is that it only works in practice. In theory it can never work.”)

Instead we should think of contributing to Wikipedia as a Public Goods dilemma: contributing has personal cost and not enough countervailing personal benefit, but it has a social benefit higher than the individual cost. The literature has mainly focused on the “prosocial preferences” that lead people to include the actions/interets of others, which leads them to overcome the Public Goods dilemma.

There are three classes of models commonly used by economists to explain prosocial behavior:

First, the altruism motive. Second, reciprocity: you respond in kind to kind actions of others. Third, “social image”: contributing to the public good signals something that brings you other utility. (He cites Napoleon: “Give me enough meals and I will win you any war.”)

His research’s method: Elicit the social prefs of a representative sample of Wikipedia contributors via an online experiment, and use those preferences to predict subjects’ field contributions to the Wikipedia project.

To check the reciprocity motive, they ran a simple public goods game. Four people in a group. Each has $10. Each has to decide how much to invest in a public project. You get some money back, but the group gets more. You can condition your contribution on the contributions of the other group members. This enables the researchers to measure how much the reciprocity motive matters to you. [I know I’m not getting this right. Hard to keep up. Sorry.] They also used a standard online trust game: You get some money from a partner, and can respond in kind.

Q: Do these tests correlate with real world behavior?

A: That’s the point of this paper. This is the first comprehensive test of all three motives.

For studying altruism, the dictator game is the standard. The dictator can give as much as s/he wants to the other person. The dictator has no reason to transfer the money. This thus measures altruism. But people might contribute to Wikipedia out of altruism just to their own Wikipedia in-group, not general altruism (“directed altruism”). So they ran another game to measure in-group altruism.

Social image is hard to measure experimentally, so they relied on observational data. “Consider as ‘social signalers’ subjects who have a Wikipedia user page whose size is bigger than the median in the sample.” You can be a quite engaged contributor to Wikipedia and not have a personal user page. But a bigger page means more concern with social image. Second, they looked at Barnstars data. Barnstars are a “social rewarding practice” that’s mainly restricted to heavy contributors: contribute well to a Wikipedia article and you might be given a barnstar. These shows up on Talk pages. About half of the people move it to their user page where it is more visible. If you move one of those awards manually to your user page, Jérôme will count you as a social signaller, i.e., someone who cares about his/her image.

He talks about some of the practical issues they faced in doing this experiment online. They illustrated the working of each game by using some simple Flash animations. And they provided calculators so you could see the effect of your decisions before you make them.

The subject pool came from registered Wikipedia users, and looked at the number of edits the user has made. (The number of contributions at Wikipedia follows a strong power law distribution.) 200,000 people register at Wikipedia account each month (2011) but only 2% make ten contributions in the their first month, and only 10% make one contribution or more within the next year. So, they recruited the cohort of new Wikipedia contributors (190,000 subjects), the group of engaged Wikipedia contributors (at least 300 edits) (18,989), and Wikipedia administrators (1,388 subjects). To recruit people, they teamed up with the Wikimedia Foundation to put a banner up on a Wikipedia page if the user met the criteria as a subject. The banner asked the reader to help with research. If readers click through, they go to the experiment page where they are paid in real money if they complete the 25 minute experiment within eight hours.

The demographics of the experiment’s subjects (1,099) matched quite closely the overall demographics of those subject pools. (The pool had 9% women, and the experiment had 8%).

Jérôme shows the regression tables and explains them. Holding the demographics steady, what is the relation between the three motives and the number of contributions? For the altruistic motive, there is no predictive power. Reciprocity in both games (public and trust) is a highly significant predictive. This tells us that reciprocal preference can lead you from being a non-contributor to being an engaged contributor; once you’re an engaged contributor, it doesn’t predict how far you’re going to go. Social image is correlated with the number of contributions; 81% of people who have received barnstars are super-contributors. Being a social signaler is associated with a 130% rise in the number of contributions you make. By both user-page length and barnstar, social image motivates for more contributions even among super-contributors.

Reciprocity incentivizes contributions only for those who are not concerned about their social image. So, reciprocity and social image are both at play among the contributors, but among separate groups. I.e., if you’re motivated by reciprocity, you are likely not motivated by social image, and vice versa.

Now Jérôme focuses on Wikipedia administrators. Altruism has no predictive value. But Wikipedia participation is negatively associated with reciprocity; perhaps this is because admins have to have thick skins to deal with disruptive users. For social image, the user page has significant revelance for admins, but not barnstars. Social image is less strong among admins than among other contributors.

Jérôme now explores his “thick skin hypothesis” to explain the admin results. In the trust game, look at how much the trustor decides how much to give to the stranger/partner. Jérôme ’s hypothesis: Among admins, those who decide to perform more of their policing role will be less trusting of strangers. There’s a negative correlation among admins between the results from the trust game and their contributions. The more time they say they do admin edits, the less trusting they are of strangers in the tests. That sort of make sense, says Jérôme. These admins are doing a valuable job for which they have self-selected, but it requires dealing with irritating people.

QA

Q: Maybe an admin is above others and is thus not being reciprocated by the group.

A: Perfectly reasonable explanation, and it is not ruled out by the data.

Q: Did you come into this with an idea of what might motivate the Wikipedians?

A: These are the three theories that are prevalent. We wanted to see how well they map onto actual field behavior.

Q: Maybe the causation goes the other way: working in Wikipedia is making people more concerned about social image or reciprocity?

A: The correlations could go in either direction. But we want to know if those explanations actually match what people do in the field.

Q: Heather Ford looks at why articles are deleted for non-Western topics. She found the notability criteria change for people not close to the topics. Maybe the motives change depending on how close you are to the event.

A: Sounds fascinating.

Q: Admins have an inherent bias in that they focus on the small percentage of contributors who are annoying jerks. If you spend your time working with jerks, it affects your sense of trust.

A: Good point. I don’t have the data to answer it.

Q: [me] If I’m a journalist I’m likely to take away the wrong conclusions from this talk, so I want to make sure I’m understanding. For example, I might conclude that Wikipedia admins are not motivated by altruism, whereas the right conclusion is (isn’t it?) that the standard altruism test doesn’t really measure altruism. Why not ask for self-reports to see?

A: Economists are skeptical about self-reports. If the reciprocity game predicts a correlation, that’s significant.

Yochai Benkler: Altruism has a special meaning among economists. It refers to any motivation other than “What’s in it for me?” [Because I asked the question, I didn’t do a good job recording the answers. Sorry.]

Q: Aren’t admins control freaks?

A: I wouldn’t say that. But control is not a pro-social motive, and I wanted to start with the theories that are current.

Q: You use the number of words someone writes on a user page as a sign of caring about social image, but this is in an context where people are there to write. And you’re correlating that to how much they write as editors and contributors. Maybe people at Wikipedia like to write. And maybe they write in those two different places for different reasons. Also, what do you do with these findings? Economists like to figure out which levers we pull if we’re not getting enough contributors.

Q: This sort of data seems to work well for large platforms with lots of users. What’s the scope of the methods you’re using? Only the top 100 web sites in the world?

A: I’d like to run this on all the peer production platforms in the world. Wikipedia is unusual if only because it’s been so successful. We’re already working on another project with 1,000 contributors at SourceForge especially to look at the effects of money, since about half of Open Source contributions are for money.


Fascinating talk. But it makes me want to be very dumb about it, because, well, I have no choice. So, here goes.

We can take this research as telling us something about Wikipedians’ motivations, about whether economists have picked the right three prosocial motivations, or about whether the standard tests of those motivations actually correlate to real-world motivations. I thought the point had to do with the last two alternatives and not so much the first. But I may have gotten it wrong.

So, suppose instead of talking about altruism, reciprocity, and social image we instead talk about the correlation between the six tests the researchers used and Wikipedia contributions. We would then have learned that Test #1 is a good predictor of the contribution levels of beginner Wikipedians, Test #2 predicts contributions by admins, Test #3 has a negative correlation with contributions by engaged Wikipedians, etc. But that would be of no interest, since we have (ex hypothesis) not made any assumptions about what the tests are testing for. Rather, the correlation would be a provocation to more research: why the heck does playing one of these odd little games correlate to Wikipedian productivity? It’d be like finding out that Wikipedian productivity is correlated to being a middle child or to wearing rings on both hands. How fascinating!… because these correlations have no implied explanatory power.

Now let’s plug back in the English terms that indicate some form of motivation. So now we can say that Test #3 shows that scoring high in altruism (in the game) does not correlate with being a Wikipedia admin. From this we can either conclude that Wikipedia admins are not motivated by altruism, or that the game fails to predict the existing altruism among Wikipedia admins. Is there anything else we can conclude without doing some independent study of what motivates Wikipedia admins? Because it flies in the face of both common sense and my own experience of Wikipedia admins; I’m pretty convinced one reason they work so hard is so everyone can have a free, reliable, neutral encyclopedia. So my strong inclination – admittedly based on anecdote and “common sense” (= “I believe what I believe!”) – is to conclude that any behavioral test that misses altruism as a component of the motivation of someone who spends thousands of hours working for free on an open encyclopedia…well, there’s something hinky about that behavioral test.

Even if the altruism tests correlate well with people engaged in activities we unproblematically associate with altruism – volunteering in a soup kitchen, giving away much of one’s income – I’d still not conclude from the lack of correlation with Wikipedia admins that those admins are not motivated by altruism, among other motivations. It just doesn’t correlate with the sort of altruism the game tests for. Just ask those admins if they’d put in the same amount of time creating a commercial encyclopedia.

So, I come out of Jérôme’s truly fascinating talk feeling like I’ve learned more about the reliability of the tests than about the motivations of Wikipedians. Based on Jérôme’s and Yochai’s responses, I think that’s what I’m supposed to have learned, but the paper also seems to be putting forward interesting conclusions (e.g., admins are not trusting types) that rely upon the tests not just correlating with the quantity of edits, but also being reliable measures of altruism, self-image, and reciprocity as motives. I assume (and thus may be wrong) that’s why Jérôme offered an hypothesis to explain the lack-of-trust result, rather than discounting the finding that admins lack trust (to oversimplify it).

(Two concluding comments: 1. Yochai’s The Leviathan and the Penguin uses behavioral tests like these, as well as case studies and observation, to make the case that we are a cooperative species. Excellent, enjoyable book. (Here’s a podcast interview I did with him about it.) 2. I’m truly sorry to be this ignorant.)

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November 27, 2013

Pronouns were a mistake that we can fix

I think half the questions I ask a certain set of people are of the sort “Wait, which ‘he’?” or “Sheila or Marg?” All pronouns do is introduce ambiguity, error, and irked moods. We’d be better off without them, by which I mean without pronouns.

Worse, in some languages pronouns force us to make decisions about the gender of inanimate objects and even of abstractions. How does that help? Why don’t we also pretend that every object has a race, an eye color, and a favorite fruit? Assigning everything hit points would actually make more sense.

There are two arguments in favor of pronouns. First, some people’s names are long. Might I suggest that if we got rid of pronouns, people would soon start taking shorter names? Or we’d come up with a convention to shorten the names in unambiguous ways. Perhaps “y” would be appended to the first syllable, as in “First Lady Michy said to President Oby, “Bary, I think you ought to meet with ex-Governor Schwarzy,” all without any implied disrespect.

Second, plural pronouns can be useful when the group doesn’t have a known name or an obvious common descriptor. For example, “Two men, a woman, and a cockerspaniel drove up to an off-duty waiter and a former action movie star, and said ‘Hey, why don’t you get in our car?,” which they did.” The ‘they’ in that sentence does some useful work. I will allow it.

First person plural is an interesting challenge. I think I would allow “we” only for an indefinite group, as in the title of this post. Otherwise, instead use the name or descriptor of the group you have in mind. Think about how clarifying it would be to actually have to specify who you’re pretending to speak for?

I will allow the use of the first person singular since it is less ambiguous than using your own name: “Give that to David” isn’t helpful when I’m in a room with David Winer, David Cameron, and Michelangelo’s Statue of David. Second person singular pronouns should not be allowed, however, since there can be ambiguity about whom one is addressing. Second person plural I will allow on the same grounds as third person plural. Plus, by disallowing the second person singular, I have solved the ambiguity caused by using the exact same frigging word for second person singular and plural. What were we thinking?

Y’all are welcome.

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November 24, 2013

How to write

I spent some time this morning happily browsing advice from famous writers on how to write, thanks to Maria Popova’s [twitter:BrainPickings] own writings on those writers writing about writing. Here’s Maria’s latest, which is about Anne Lamont’s Bird By Bird, an excellent (and excellently written!) piece that also contains links to famous writers on said topic.

Some of these pieces were familiar, some not, but all convinced me of one thing: writers should re-label their advice on how to write as “How I Write.” I find myself irked by every one of them into looking for counter-examples, even though I personally agree with much of what they say, and in many instances find their comments remarkably insightful.

Still, I want to push back when, for example, Susan Sontag says:

Your job is to see people as they really are, and to do this, you have to know who you are in the most compassionate possible sense. Then you can recognize others.

Yet you can’t throw a cat into a room full of writers without hitting someone wildly self-deceptive and unknowing. For example, Sontag’s own writing about writing ranges from breathtakingly perceptive to provocative to transparently self-aggrandizing.

Likewise, Elmore Leonard’s brilliant 10 rules of writing are clearly not rules for how to write, but rules for how to write like Elmore Leonard. (His ten rules are themselves a great example of his own style.) For instance, there’s #4:

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”

Ok.

I even find myself pushing back against one of his rules that I greatly admire:

“If it sounds like writing … rewrite it.”

I love that…except that what do we do with Bernini? His Apollo and Daphne statue — the one where Daphne’s fingers sprout translucent leaves — is so realistic and yet so marble that one cannot look at it without thinking, “Holy crap! That’s marble!!!” (By the way, I just violated Leonard’s rule #5: “Keep your exclamation points under control.” He’s right about that.) Likewise, are we sure that no poetry is allowed to sound like writing?

Meanwhile, David Ogilvy — the model for Dan Draper in pitch-mode, and a writer I admire greatly — is stylistically in sync with Elmore Leonard, but disagrees with both Leonard’s and Sontag’s rules. (Note: That was a highly imperfect sentence. Welcome to my blog.) Agreeing with Leonard, Ogilvy demands simplicity and avoiding pretentious, abstract terms. But his second rule says:

Write the way you talk. Naturally.

What do you say to that, Elmore? If you write the way you talk, will it sound like writing? And, David, suppose you don’t talk so good?

And Ogilvy’s eighth rule says:

If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.

I’m not sure that Sontag’s insistence that writing requires something like personal authenticity allows for editing by colleagues. Why can’t “Hire yourself the best goddamn editor you can find” be an important Rule for Writers? And before you assume that such a needy writer must be a pathetic schlub who on her/his own is writing schlock, keep in mind that The New Yorker has a tradition of featuring truly superb writers in part because of the strength of its editors.

Maria Popova’s essays on writers advising writers (which, let me reiterate, I admire and enjoy) includes some pieces of advice that are incontestable, but in the bad sense that they are verge on being tautologies. For example, Lamont says:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.

That’s certainly true if it perfectionism means a paralyzing perfectionism, i.e., the sort of perfectionism that keeps you cramped and insane, and that prevents you from doing a shitty first draft. (You have to love Lamont’s rule-violating use of “shitty.”) But there is also a type of perfectionism that makes an author worry over every broken rhythm and soft imprecision, and that ultimately results in lapidary works. Also, I’d venture that for most authors, the real obstacle to getting to that shitty first draft is not perfectionism but the fact that they’re just too damn tired when they get home from work.

The thing is, I agree with Lamont about perfectionism. It’s one reason I like blogging. I’m in favor of filling in the spaces between writing and speaking, between publishing and drafting. Even so, I find myself so insistently pushing back against advice from writers that it makes me wonder why. Maybe…

…Maybe it’s because I don’t think there’s such a thing as “writing” except in its most literal sense: putting marks on a rectangular surface. Beyond that, there is nothing that holds the concept of writing together.

This still makes it better than “communication,” an abstraction that gets wrong what it is an abstraction from. Still, communication provides a useful analogy. To give advice on how to communicate well, one will have to decide ahead of time what type of communication one is referring to. Wooing? Convincing a jury? Praying? Writing a murder mystery? Asking for change from strangers? Muttering imprecations at the fact of dusk? Yelling “Fie! Her!!” in a crowded theater? Even basic rules like “Speak clearly” assume that one is communicating orally and that one is not Marlon Brando auditioning for a part. And even within anyone one domain or task of communication, the best practices are really about maintaining a form of rhetoric, not about communicating well.

There are plenty of tips about how to write the thing one wants to write. These tips can be very helpful. For example, I have a friend who swears by Write Or Die to help her get her shitty first draft down on paper. (No, my friend, your first drafts really aren’t shitty. I was using a technique I recommend that everyone use because I use it: the callback.) That tip works for her, but not for me. Still, I’m in favor of tips! But tips are “How I write” or “How I’ve heard some other people write,” not “How to write.”

How to write? I dunno. Lots of ways, I guess.

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