Joho the Blog » social media

September 18, 2014

Et tu, U2?

A few days ago, when Apple pushed the latest from U2 into everyone’s iTunes library, you could hear the Internet pause as it suddenly realized that Apple is its parents’ age.

Now in the ad-promotion succubus occupying the body of what used to be Time Magazine, you can see U2 desperate to do exactly the wrong thing: insisting that it wasn’t a gift at all. You can learn more about this in the hilariously titled cover article of Time: “The veteran rock band faces the future.” This a future in which tracks we don’t like are bundled with tracks we do (the return of the CD format) and people who share with their fans are ruining it for U2, boohoo.

Or, as Bono recently said, “We were paid” for the Apple downloads, adding, “I don’t believe in free music. Music is a sacrament.” And as everyone knows, sacraments need to be purchased at a fair market value, the results of which Bono, as a deeply spiritual artist, secures in sacred off-shore accounts.

In my head I hear Bono, enraged by the increasingly bad publicity, composing a message that he posts without first running it through his phalanx of PR folks:

Dear fans:

You have recently received a copy of our latest album, Songs of Innocence, in your iTunes library. U2 understands you may be confused or even upset by this. So, let me clarify once and for all the most important point about this — if I may humbly say so — eternal masterpiece. It was not our intention to cause you stress or to wonder if you have the musical sensitivity to full grasp (if I may, humbly say) the greatness of our work. But most important, it is essential above all that you understand that it was not our intention to give you a gift. No freaking way.

We understand your mistake. You are, after all, just fans, and you don’t play in the Jetstream world of global music. As I said to my dear friend Nelson Mandela (friend is too weak a word; I was his mentor) shortly before he passed, music is a sacrament, just like tickets to movies, especially ones with major stars working for scale, or like the bill at a restaurant where you and any two of the Clintons (Chelsea, you are a star! Give yourself that!) are plotting goodness.

To tell you the truth, I’m disappointed in you. No, worse. I’m hurt. Personally hurt. How dare you think this was a gift! After all these years, is that all U2 is worth to you? Nothing? Our music has all the value of a CrackerJacks trinket or a lower-end Rolex in an awards show gift bag? Do you not understand that Apple paid us for every copy they distributed? We were paid for it, sheeple! Massive numbers of dollars were transferred into our bank accounts! More dollars than you could count, you whiny little “Ooh look at me I’m sharing” wankers! We’re U2 dammit! We don’t need you! You need us! MONEY IS LOVE! EXTRA-ORDINARY LOVE!!!!!!

Have a beautiful day.

Meanwhile, as always, Amanda Palmer expresses the open-hearted truth about this issue. It almost makes me regret making fun of Bono. Almost.

>Bono makes it clear U2 was paid for the

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August 28, 2014

The problem with civility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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August 25, 2014

Have social networks replaced groups?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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August 22, 2014

The social Web before social networks: a report from 2003

The Web was social before it had social networking software. It just hadn’t yet evolved a pervasive layer of software specifically designed to help us be social.

In 2003 it was becoming clear that we needed — and were getting — a new class of application, unsurprisingly called “social software.” But what sort of sociality were we looking for? What sort could such software bestow?

That was the theme of Clay Shirky’s 2003 keynote at the ETech conference, the most important gathering of Web developers of its time. Clay gave a brilliant talk,“A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy,” in which he pointed to an important dynamic of online groups. I replied to him at the same conference (“The Unspoken of Groups”). This was a year before Facebook launched. The two talks, especially Clay’s, serve as reminders of what the Internet looked like before social networks.

Here’s what for me was the take-away from these two talks:

The Web was designed to connect pages. People, being people, quickly created ways for groups to form. But there was no infrastructure for connecting those groups, and your participation in one group did nothing to connect you to your participation in another group. By 2003 it was becoming obvious (well, to people like Clay) that while the Internet made it insanely easy to form a group, we needed help — built into the software, but based on non-technological understanding of human sociality — sustaining groups, especially now that everything was scaling beyond imagination.

So this was a moment when groups were increasingly important to the Web, but they were failing to scale in two directions: (1) a social group that gets too big loses the intimacy that gives it its value; and (2) there was a proliferation of groups but they were essential disconnected from every other group.

Social software was the topic of the day because it tried to address the first problem by providing better tools. But not much was addressing the second problem, for that is truly an infrastructural issue. Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the Web let the global aggregation of online documents scale by creating an open protocol for linking them. Mark Zuckerberg addressed the issue of groups scaling by creating a private company, with deep consequences for how we are together online.


Clay’s 2003 analysis of the situation is awesome. What he (and I, of course) did not predict was that a single company would achieve the position of de facto social infrastructure.



When Clay gave his talk, “social software” was all the rage, as he acknowledges in his very first line. He defines it uncontroversially as “software that supports group interaction.” The fact that social software needed a definition already tells you something about the state of the Net back then. As Clay said, the idea of social software was “rather radical” because “Prior to the Internet, the last technology that had any real effect on the way people sat down and talked together was the table,” and even the Internet so far was not doing a great job supporting sociality at the group level.

He points out that designers of social software are always surprised by what people do with their software, but thinks there are some patterns worth attending to. So he divides his talk into three parts: (1) pre-Internet research that explains why groups tend to become their own worst enemy; (2) the “revolution in social software” that makes this worth thinking about; and (3) “about a half dozen things…that I think are core to any software that supports larger, long-lived groups.”

Part 1 uses the research of W.R. Bion from his 1961 book, Experiences in Groups that leads him, and Clay, to conclude that because groups have a tendency to sandbag “their sophisticated goals with…basic urges,” groups need explicit formulations of acceptable behaviors. “Constitutions are a necessary component of large, long-lived, heterogenous groups.”

Part 2 asks: if this has been going on for a long time, why is it so important now? “I can’t tell you precisely why, but observationally there is a revolution in social software going on. The number of people writing tools to support or enhance group collaboration or communication is astonishing.”

The Web was getting very very big by 2003 and Clay points says that “we blew past” the “interesting scale of small groups.” Conversation doesn’t scale.

“We’ve gotten weblogs and wikis, and I think, even more importantly, we’re getting platform stuff. We’re getting RSS. We’re getting shared Flash objects. We’re getting ways to quickly build on top of some infrastructure we can take for granted, that lets us try new things very rapidly.”

Why did it take so long to get weblogs? The tech was ready from the day we had Mosaic, Clay says. “I don’t know. It just takes a while for people to get used to these ideas.” But now (2003) we’re fully into the fully social web. [The social nature of the Web was also a main theme of The Cluetrain Manifesto in 2000.]

What did this look like in 2003, beyond blogs and wikis? Clay gives an extended, anecdotal example. He was on a conference all with Joi Ito, Peter Kaminski, and a few others. Without planning to, the group started using various modalities simultaneously. Someone opened a chat window, and “the interrupt logic” got moved there. Pete opened a wiki and posted its URL into the chat. The conversation proceeded along several technological and social forms simultaneously. Of course this is completely unremarkable now. But that’s the point. It was unusual enough that Clay had to carefully describe it to a room full of the world’s leading web developers. It was a portent of the future:

This is a broadband conference call, but it isn’t a giant thing. It’s just three little pieces of software laid next to each other and held together with a little bit of social glue. This is an incredibly powerful pattern. It’s different from: Let’s take the Lotus juggernaut and add a web front-end.

Most important, he says, access is becoming ubiquitous. Not uniformly, of course. But it’s a pattern. (Clay’s book Here Comes Everybody expands on this.)

In Part 3, he asks: “‘What is required to make a large, long-lived online group successful?’ and I think I can now answer with some confidence: ‘It depends.’ I’m hoping to flesh that answer out a little bit in the next ten years.” He suggests we look for the pieces of social software that work, given that “The normal experience of social software is failure.” He suggests that if you’re designing social software, you should accept three things:

  1. You can’t separate the social from the technical.
  2. Groups need a core that watches out for the well-being of the group itself.
  3. That core “has rights that trump individual rights in some situations.” (In this section, Clay refers to Wikipedia as “the Wikipedia.” Old timer!)

Then there are four things social software creators ought to design for:


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

Clay ends the talk by reminding us that: “The users are there for one another. They may be there on hardware and software paid for by you, but the users are there for one another.”

This is what “social software” looked like in 2003 before online sociality was largely captured by a single entity. It is also what brilliance sounds like.


I gave an informal talk later at that same conference. I spoke extemporaneously and then wrote up what I should have said. My overall point was that one reason we keep making the mistake that Clay points to is that groups rely so heavily on unspoken norms. Making those norms explicit, as in a group constitution, can actually do violence to the group — not knife fights among the members, but damage to the groupiness of the group.

I said that I had two premises: (1) groups are really, really important to the Net; and (2) “The Net is really bad at supporting groups.”

It’s great for letting groups form, but there are no services built in for helping groups succeed. There’s no agreed-upon structure for representing groups. And if groups are so important, why can’t I even see what groups I’m in? I have no idea what they all are, much less can I manage my participation in them. Each of the groups I’m in is treated as separate from every other.

I used Friendster as my example “because it’s new and appealing.” (Friendster was an early social networking site, kids. It’s now a gaming site.) Friendster suffers from having to ask us to make explicit the implicit stuff that actually matters to friendships, including writing a profile describing yourself and having to accept or reject a “friend me” request. “I’m not suggesting that Friendster made a poor design decision. I’m suggesting that there is no good design decision to be made here.” Making things explicit often does violence to them.

That helps explains why we keep making the mistake Clay points to. Writing a constitution requires a group to make explicit decisions that often break the groups apart. Worse, I suggest, groups can’t really write a constitution “until they’ve already entangled themselves in thick, messy, ambiguous, open-ended relationships,” for “without that thicket of tangles, the group doesn’t know itself well enough to write a constitution.”

I suggest that there’s hope in social software if it is considered to be emergent, rather than relying on users making explicit decisions about their sociality. I suggested two ways it can be considered emergent: “First, it enables social groups to emerge. It goes not from implicit to explicit, but from potential to actual.” Second, social software should enable “the social network’s shape to emerge,” rather than requiring upfront (or, worse, topdown) provisioning of groups. I suggest a platform view, much like Clay’s.

I, too, ask why social software was a buzzword in 2003. In part because the consultants needed a new topic, and in part because entrepreneurs needed a new field. But perhaps more important (I suggested), recent experience had taught us to trust that we could engage in bottom-up sociality without vandals ripping it all to part. This came on the heels of companies realizing that the first-generation topdown social software (e.g., Lotus Notes) was stifling as much sociality and creativity as it was enabling. But our experience with blogs and wikis over the prior few years had been very encouraging:

Five years ago, it was obvious beyond question that groups need to be pre-structured if the team is to “hit the ground running.” Now, we have learned — perhaps — that many groups organize themselves best by letting the right structure emerge over time.

I end on a larger, vaguer, and wrong-er point: “Could we at last be turning from the great lie of the Age of Computers, that the world is binary?” Could we be coming to accept that the “world is ambiguous, with every thought, perception and feeling just a surface of an unspoken depth?”

Nah.

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August 15, 2014

From Berkman: Zeynep and Ethanz on the Web We Want

This week there were two out-of-the-park posts by Berkman folk: Ethan Zuckerman on advertising as the Net’s original sin, and Zeynep Tufecki on the power of the open Internet as demonstrated by coverage of the riots in Ferguson. Each provides a view on whether the Net is a failed promise. Each is brilliant and brilliantly written.

Zeynep on Ferguson

Zeynep, who has written with wisdom and insight on the role of social media in the Turkish protests (e.g., here and here), looks at how Twitter brought the Ferguson police riots onto the national agenda and how well Twitter “covered” them. But those events didn’t make a dent in Facebook’s presentation of news. Why? she asks.

Twitter is an open platform where anyone can post whatever they want. It therefore reflects our interests — although no medium is a mere reflection. FB, on the other hand, uses algorithms to determine what it thinks our interests are … except that its algorithms are actually tuned to get us to click more so that FB can show us more ads. (Zeynep made that point about an early and errant draft of my CNN.com commentary on the FB mood experiment. Thanks, Zeynep!) She uses this to make an important point about the Net’s value as a medium the agenda of which is not set by commercial interests. She talks about this as “Net Neutrality,” extending it from its usual application to the access providers (Comcast, Verizon and their small handful of buddies) to those providing important platforms such as Facebook.

She concludes (but please read it all!):

How the internet is run, governed and filtered is a human rights issue.

And despite a lot of dismal developments, this fight is far from over, and its enemy is cynicism and dismissal of this reality.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

What happens to #Ferguson affects what happens to Ferguson.

Yup yup yup. This post is required reading for all of the cynics who would impress us with their wake-up-and-smell-the-shitty-coffee pessimism.

Ethan on Ads

Ethan cites a talk by Maciej Ceglowski for the insight that “we’ve ended up with surveillance as the default, if not sole, internet business model.” Says Ethan,

I have come to believe that advertising is the original sin of the web. The fallen state of our Internet is a direct, if unintentional, consequence of choosing advertising as the default model to support online content and services.

Since Internet ads are more effective as a business model than as an actual business, companies are driven ever more frantically to gather customer data in order to hold out the hope of making their ads more effective. And there went out privacy. (This is a very rough paraphrase of Ethan’s argument.)

Ethan pays more than lip service to the benefits — promised and delivered — of the ad-supported Web. But he points to four rather devastating drawbacks, include the distortions caused by algorithmic filtering that Zeynep warns us about. Then he discusses what we can do about it.

I’m not going to try to summarize any further. You need to read this piece. And you will enjoy it. For example, betcha can’t guess who wrote the code for the world’s first pop-up ads. Answer:   Ethan  .

Also recommended: Jeff Jarvis’ response and Mathew Ingram’s response to both. I myself have little hope that advertising can be made significantly better, where “better” means being unreservedly in the interests of “consumers” and sufficiently valuable to the advertisers. I’m of course not confident about this, and maybe tomorrow someone will come up with the solution, but my thinking is based on the assumption that the open Web is always going to be a better way for us to discover what we care about because the native building material of the Web is in fact what we find mutually interesting.

Conclusion:

Read both these articles. They are important contributions to understanding the Web We Want.

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July 1, 2014

[2b2k] That Facebook experiment

I have an op-ed/column up at CNN about the Facebook experiment. [The next day: The op-ed led to 4 mins on the Jake Tapper show. Oh what the heck. Here's the video.]

All I’ll say here is how struck I am again (as always) about the need to leave out most of everything when writing goes from web-shaped to rectangular.

Just as a quick example, I’m not convinced that the Facebook experiment was as egregious as the headlines would have us believe. But I made a conscious decision not to address that point in my column because I wanted to make a more general point. The rectangle for an op-ed is only so big.

Before I wrote the column, I’d observed, and lightly participated in, some amazing discussion threads among people who bring many different sorts of expertise to the party. Disagreements that were not just civil but highly constructive. Evidence based on research and experience experience. Civic concern. Emotional connections. Just amazing.

I learned so much from those discussions. What I produced in my op-ed is so impoverished compared to the richness in that tangle of linked differences. That’s where the real knowledge lives.

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May 21, 2014

[liveblog] Judith Donath on designing for sociality (“Social Machines”)

Judith Donath is giving a book talk to launch The Social Machine. I read it this weekend and it is a rich work that explores the ways in which good design can improve our online sociality. I’m a fan of Judith’s and am looking forward to seeing what 25-minutes’ worth of ideas she selects to talk about tonight, given the richness of her book.

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.

Judith begins by saying that the theme of the book is the importance of online social interaction and designing for it. Our interfaces may look sophisticated but they’re primitive when it comes to enabling social interaction. She uses a Mark Twain story ["Was the World Made for Man?"] about an oyster’s point of view to remind us that online design isn’t really all that evolved. One big issue: We can’t see the interactions.

We like being with other people, Judith remindsd us. We like seeing how they look, feeling the energy in a room, etc. This is hard to perceive when you’re looking at screen. Our computers connect us to tremendous crowds, but we don’t see the level of activity or the patterns. She shows a work from 25 years ago when she spent a summer in Japan. Her friends were in Boston on computers. The “who” command let her see who was online and how active they were; it was an old-style computer print-out of a list. She came back from Japan trying to design a more useful display. In the early 1990s she came up with “Visual Who,” a text-based visualization of the people online, filterable by interests, etc. She shows some other ways of displaying social network maps, but such maps aren’t yet integrated into the social network interfaces. Maps like these would help manage Facebook’s privacy settings, she ways. Or we could use them as an interface for keeping up with people we haven’t interacted with in a while, etc.

Legibility is a huge issue, she says. Information is non-spatial, so it can be hard to parse. Judith points to the Talk pages where Wikipedia pages are discussed and edited. Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg did a visualization (History Flow) of the edits on the Chocolate article. This lets you see what’s controversial and what isn’t. They then took the same data and looked not at every edit, but sampled it at fixed times. It’s a much smoother diagram. That shows the reader’s experience, while the first version showed the writers’ version.

Now Judith talks about “Beyond Being There” (a paper by Hollan, Nielsen, Stornetta, et al.). We can do things with these tools that we can’t do face-to-face. (The fact that we’re in public looking at our cell phones indicates that we’re getting some meaningful social connection that way, she says.) Judith shows the interface to “Talking Circles,” [pdf] an interface for audio conferences. It consists of colored circles. When someone speaks, their circle’s inside moves with their voice. Circles that are near each other are able to hear each other. As they move away, they can’t hear each other. So you could have a private conversation over this digital medium.

These interfaces change the social dynamics around a space. E.g., the “Like” economy induces some to use Intagram to try to gather more likes. Judith points to the Karrie Karahalios and Viega’s Conversation Clock“, a table top that shows who spoke when and who overlapped (interrupted) another. E.g., the fact that we’re all being watched (or think we are — Judith references the Panopticon) shapes our behavior. She points to the EU’s decision that Google has to remove links upon user request.

Judith points to a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, who looks young in a painting done when she was 65. If you think about data as portraying someone, you become aware of the triangle of subject, audience, and painter, each with their own interests. (She says that two years ago another portrait of Elizabeth from the same time and studio shows her looking very old indeed.)

When you think about doing portraits with data, you have to ask how to make something expressive. She points to “The Rhythm of Salience,” a project she created using an existing conversation database. She picked out words that she identified as being about the individuals. At heart, a portrait takes what’s representative of someone, exaggerates it, and shows the salience. She shows the Caricature Generator by Susan Brennan. You can do the same thing with words, e.g. Themail by Fernanda Viegas and Scott Golder. People save their email, but generally they don’t use their archives. People are more interested in keeping the patterns of relationships than in the individual emails. So, Themail shows a histogram of the month-to-month relationship with anyone in your archive. The column shows the volume of messages, but the words that compose the bars show you the dominant words. [I didn't get that exactly right. Sorry]

She ends by showing Personas by Aaron Zinman (and Donath). You type in your name and spits back a little portrait of you. It searches Google for mentions of your name and characterizes it.

All of these raise enormous questions, she says.

Q&A [extra special abbreviated version]

Q: [me] Is this change good? Or pathological? You show an incredibly fluid environment; is this changing our f2f relationships?

A: Jane Jacobs wrote the Life and Death of Great American Cities not to judge cities but to make them better. My book tries to show ways we can use design to make our social relationships better. Right now we deal with one another differently f2f and in the real world. In 10 years, that distinction will be much less pronounced. E.g., as Google Glass type products and better interfaces will have much more important affects on f2f. That’s why it’s important that we think about these issues now.

Colin Maclay: And as danah boyd says, for the youth it’s not offline or online life. It’s just life.

Q: What’s the difference between info that you put up and info about you that others post and use?

A: There’s very little use of pseudonymity online. Usually it’s your real name or you’re anonymous. Judith shops online for most of her stuff, and she reads reviews. But she doesn’t write reviews in part because she doesn’t want her deodorant review to come up when people google her. That’s where pseudonyms come in. Pseudonyms don’t guarantee complete anonymity but for everyday use they enable us to gain control over our lives online.

Q: Nicholas Negroponte: You were doing social networking work decades ago. Why is it taking so long for the evolution we’re waiting for?

A: The Web set design back tremendously. The Web made it easy for everyone to participate, but one of the costs was that the simplicity of the interface of the Web made it hard to do design or to have identities online. It slowed down a lot of social design. Also, the world of design is extremely conservative because companies imitate one another.

Q: GPS is causing a generational difference in how we navigate space…

A: Tech is often designed subconsciously so that there are insiders and outsiders. [I've overly shortened this interchange.]

Q: Email vs. text messaging?

A: There are fashions. Also, IM has its uses…

Q: How can sites guarantee what they intend to provide, e.g., privacy? How can they ensure trust? E.g., people have figured out how to take screencaptures of snapchat, subverting the design.

A: Design doesn’t guarantee things. But we should have spaces where we have good enough privacy. We need better interfaces for this. Also, many things you see online don’t let you have a sense of how big your audience is or how permanent will be what you say. Some of the visualizations I’ve talked about give you a sense of the publicness of what you’re saying.

Q: Pseudonymity does reign supreme on Reddit. And whatever happened to Second Life, which seems to address some of the issues you talked about.

A: About every 7 years, a new avatar-based space comes out, so we’re about due for the next. Our original work with Chat Spaces was in response to The Palace. I’m not a big fan of that type of graphical chat space because they’re trying to reproduce the feeling of being f2f without going “beyond being there. ” E.g., a student [?] wrote a paper on why there are chairs in Second Life. Good question. Q: What about skeuomorphism? That metaphor holds things back. Is it just an art to come up with designs that break the old metaphors?

A: The first part of the book deals with that question. There’s a chapter on metaphor. If your metaphors are too heavy handed, they limit what you can do. E.g., if you use folders, you have to figure out which one to put your email in. If you used labels (tags), you wouldn’t have to make those decisions. A lot of the art of design is learning how to use metaphors so you can do something more abstract while still being legible, and how you can bend the metaphors without breaking them.

Q: How does Internet balkanization affect your viewpoint and affect designers?

A: How do we use language and images to bridge cultures? Designers have to understand what images mean. It’s an enormously difficult problem. It’s crucial to try to be always cognizant of one’s own cultural issues. E.g., Caricatures look different depending on your cultural norms. In the book, I did not write about caricatures of Obama in white and black publications, butepending on what norm you use, you get different results about what’s salient.

Q: If you could give people a visualization of how they behave in negotiations, that could be useful when people get stuck.

A: The Conversation Clock’s design has done some work on this. Who’s saying no? Who’s interrupting. It’s difficult for people to notice.

Q: The iPhone has just moved away from skeuomorphism. Do you know how long it takes for us to move away from this?

A: Much of this has to do with style and fashion.

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April 25, 2014

[nextweb] Marc Smith on the shape of networks

This is a very bare overview of Marc Smith’s talk at The NextWeb [twitter: thenextwebEurope].

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.

Marc Smith wants to understand how social power works. The SocialMedia Research Foundation want to build the quivalent of the Kodak Brownie, which made photography into an amateur activity. What would a snapshot of a hashtag look like? Twitter doesn’t show you the crowd as it actually is. Crowds are happy, or angry, or whatever. “We’re interested in revealing the shape of the crowd.” That’s what NodeXL does.

Marc would like to make a browser that shows not pages but webs. They have Open Source tools heading this way. See some at NodeXLGraphGallery.org, “the Flickr for networks.” They are aiming at Social Scholarship so scholars can navigate social media and understand it. One obstacle: social data are largely owned by the commercial vendors providing the social tools.

“Who’s the mayor of your hashtag?” Social network maps show you who are the key influencers, what are the subgroups, and, crucially, who bridges the divides.

He points to six different types of nets at Twitter. [I missed them. Sorry.] The network of people talking about tax policy is very divide,d as opposed to a community of friends. Paul Krugman’s broadcast pattern (Krugman at the center) is very different from the First Lady’s which consist of a set of communities talking about her. If you know about these six patterns, you can ask what you want and how you can get there.

You can see the Twitter network for The Next Web here.

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April 9, 2014

[shorenstein] Andy Revkin on communicating climate science

I’m at a talk by Andrew Revkin of the NY Times’ Dot Earth blog at the Shorenstein Center. [Alex Jones mentions in his introduction that Andy is a singer-songwriter who played with Pete Seeger. Awesome!]

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.

Andy says he’s been a science reporter for 31 years. His first magazine article was about the dangers of the anti-pot herbicide paraquat. (The article won an award for investigative journalism). It had all the elements — bad guys, victims, drama — typical of “Woe is me. Shame on you” environmental reporting. His story on global warming in 1988 has “virtually the same cast of characters” that you see in today’s coverage. “And public attitudes are about the same…Essentially the landscape hasn’t changed.” Over time, however, he has learned how complex climate science is.

In 2010, his blog moved from NYT’s reporting to editorial, so now he is freer to express his opinions. He wants to talk with us today about the sort of “media conversation” that occurs now, but didn’t when he started as a journalist. We now have a cloud of people who follow a journalist, ready to correct them. “You can say this is terrible. It’s hard to separate noise from signal. And that’s correct.” “It can be noisy, but it’s better than the old model, because the old model wasn’t always right.” Andy points to the NYT coverage on the build up to the invasion of Iraq. But this also means that now readers have to do a lot of the work themselves.

He left the NYT in his mid-fifties because he saw that access to info more often than not doesn’t change you, but instead reinforces your positions. So at Pace U he studies how and why people understand ecological issues. “What is it about us that makes us neglect long-term imperatives?” This works better in a blog in a conversation drawing upon other people’s expertise than an article. “I’m a shitty columnist,” he says. People read columns to reinforce their beliefs, although maybe you’ll read George Will to refresh your animus :) “This makes me not a great spokesperson for a position.” Most positions are one-sided, whereas Andy is interested in the processes by which we come to our understanding.

Q: [alex jones] People seem stupider about the environment than they were 20 years ago. They’re more confused.

A: In 1991 there was a survey of museum goers who thought that global warming was about the ozone hole, not about greenhouse gases. A 2009 study showed that on a scale of 1-6 of alarm, most Americans were at 5 (“concerned,” not yet “alarmed”). Yet, Andy points out, the Cap and Trade bill failed. Likewise,the vast majority support rebates on solar panels and fuel-efficient vehicles. They support requiring 45mph fuel efficiency across vehicle fleets, even at a $1K price premium. He also points to some Gallup data that showed that more than half of the respondents worry a great a deal or a fair amount, but that number hasn’t changed since they Gallup began asking the question, in 1989. [link] Furthermore, global warming doesn’t show up as one of the issues they worry about.

The people we need to motivate are innovators. We’ll have 9B on the planet soon, and 2B who can’t make reasonable energy choices.

Q: Are we heading toward a climate tipping point?

A: There isn’t evidence that tipping points in climate are real and if they are, we can’t really predict them. [link]

Q: The permafrost isn’t going to melt?

A: No, it is melting. But we don’t know if it will be catastrophic.

Andy points to a photo of despair at a climate conference. But then there’s Scott H. DeLisi who represents a shift in how we relate to communities: Facebook, Twitter, Google Hangouts. Inside Climate News won the Pulitzer last year. “That says there are new models that may work. Can they sustain their funding?” Andy’s not sure.

“Journalism is a shinking wedge of a growing pie of ways to tell stories.”

“Escape from the Nerd Loop”: people talking to one another about how to communicate science issues. Andy loves Twitter. The hashtag is as big an invention as photovoltaics, he says. He references Chris Messina, its inventor, and points to how useful it is for separating and gathering strands of information, including at NASA’s Asteroid Watch. Andy also points to descriptions by a climate scientist who went to the Arctic [or Antarctic?] that he curated, and to a singing scientist.

Q: I’m a communications student. There was a guy named Marshall McLuhan, maybe you haven’t heard of him. Is the medium the message?

A: There are different tools for different jobs. I could tell you the volume of the atmosphere, but Adam Nieman, a science illustrator, used this way to show it to you.

Q: Why is it so hard to get out of catastrophism and into thinking about solutions?

A: Journalism usually focuses on the down side.If there’s no “Woe is me” element, it tends not to make it onto the front page. At Pace U. we travel each spring and do a film about a sustainable resource farming question. The first was on shrimp-farming in Belize. It’s got thousands of views but it’s not on the nightly news. How do we shift our norms in the media?

[david ropiek] Inherent human psychology: we pay more attention to risks. People who want to move the public dial inherently are attracted to the more attention-getting headlines, like “You’re going to die.”

A: Yes. And polls show that what people say about global warming depends on the weather outside that day.

A report recently drew the connection between climate change and other big problems facing us: poverty, war, etc. What did you think of it?

A: It was good. But is it going to change things? The Extremes report likewise. The city that was most affected by the recent typhoon had tripled its population, mainly with poor people. Andy values Jesse Ausubel who says that most politics is people pulling on disconnected levels.

Q: Any reflections on the disconnect between breezy IPCC executive summaries and the depth of the actual scientific report?

A: There have been demands for IPCC to write clearer summaries. Its charter has it focused on the down sides.

Q: How can we use open data and community tools to make better decisions about climate change? Will the data Obama opened up last month help?

A: The forces of stasis can congregate on that data and raise questions about it based on tiny inconsistencies. So I’m not sure it will change things. But I’m all for transparency. It’s an incredibly powerful tool, like when the US Embassy was doing its own twitter feed on Beijing air quality. We have this wonderful potential now; Greenpeace (who Andy often criticizes) did on-the-ground truthing about companies deforesting organgutang habitats in Indonesia. Then they did a great campaign to show who’s using the palm oil: Buying a Kitkat bar contributes to the deforesting of Borneo. You can do this ground-truthing now.

Q: In the past 6 months there seems to have been a jump in climate change coverage. No?

A: I don’t think there’s more coverage.

Q: India and Pakistan couldn’t agree on water control in part because the politicians talked about scarcity while the people talked in terms of their traditional animosities. How can we find the right vocabularies?

A: If the conversation is about reducing vulnerabilities and energy efficiency, you can get more consensus than talking about global warming.

Q: How about using data visualizations instead of words?

A: I love visualizations. They spill out from journalism. How much it matters is another question. Ezra Klein just did a piece that says that information doesn’t matter.

Q: Can we talk about your “Years of Living Dangerously” piece? [Couldn't hear the rest of the question].

A: My blog is edited by the op-ed desk, and I don’t always understand their decisions. Journalism migrates toward controversy. The Times has a feature “Room for Debate,” and I keep proposing “Room for Agreement” [link], where you’d see what people who disagree about an issue can agree on.

Q: [me] Should we still be engaging with deniers? With whom should we be talking?

A: Yes, we should engage. We taxpayers subsidize second mortgages on houses in wild fire zones in Colorado. Why? So firefighters have to put themselves at risk? [link] That’s an issue that people agree on across the spectrum. When it comes to deniers, we have to ask what exactly are you denying, Particular data? Scientific method? Physics? I’ve come to the conclusion that even if we had perfect information, we still wouldn’t galvanize the action we need.

[Andy ends by singing a song about liberated carbon. That's not something you see every day at the Shorenstein Center.]

[UPDATE (the next day): I added some more links.]

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February 26, 2014

Facebook provides more this-like-that instead of this-oh-that! (Or relevancy, interestingingness, and serendipity)

Facebook has announced that it’s going to start adding to your newsfeed stories that you don’t know about but that are on the same topic as ones you follow. As their post puts it:

Now, when a Page tags another Page, we may show the post to some of the people who like or follow the tagged Page.

So close.

In the late 1990s and early Oughties, the size of material being indexed by search engines busted the main metrics. Precision measured how many results of a query pertained to that query — how “noisy” the results are. Recall measured how many of the pertinent results were missed by the results list. But when you are indexing hundreds of billions of pages, total recall results in a noisy list because there are so many results that you can’t find the one that’s most relevant. Thus relevancy became much more important than before.

But even relevancy doesn’t cut the mustard when you are browsing the hay more than looking for the needle. Thus, over the past ten years or so we’ve seen interestingness become important in some environments. Sorting Flickr search results by interestingness turns up some of the most striking photos.

drops on a needle example of interestingness at Flickr

Search for “needle,” sorted by “Interesting” at Flickr (cc-by-nc-sa dmelchordiaz)

Reddit‘s community upvoting mechanism results in a front page that reflects not precision, recall, or relevancy, but interestingness. Reddit’s front page also illustrates that when we ask for results sorted by interestingness, we apparently tolerate far more noise than with any of the other three metrics.

These four criteria obviously each have circumstances in which they have value. If you know what you’re looking for, precision counts. If you need to do a complete review of the literature, or just need to cover your backside — an “Oh crap I didn’t come across that” moment is not permissible — then recall is your friend. If you are finding your way through a new topic, then relevancy will give you a feel for the terrain. But if you want to find something that will stimulate and amaze you, click on the interestingness button.

Facebook has opted for relevancy. This makes sense for them from an economic standpoint: You will be a happy Facebooker if you are shown stuff you didn’t know about that conforms to your existing interests and values. In their blog post explaining the change, Facebook takes as their paradigmatic example showing you a post of a photo captioned “James Harden and Dwight Harden throw down some sick dunks during practice” because you “follow or like Dwight Howard.” Highly relevant. And if Facebook started showing its users posts as noisy as what you get on the Reddit homepage or from a Flickr stream sorted by interestingness, its users would likely revolt.

So, I understand how this new move makes for happier users and thus makes Facebook richer and safer.

But…

It’s a missed opportunity for helping to break us out of our “filter bubble” — Eli Pariser’s term for always being shown items that too closely reflect our existing interests and worldview, and that therefore confirm that worldview rather than expanding it. (See Eli’s excellent TED Talk.) It would have been far more helpful if Facebook had chosen to expand our worldview through interestingingess rather than reinforce it through relevancy.

Interestingingness is the key to serendipity, a term that, like precision and recall, doesn’t scale very well. Those who call for greater serendipity are trusting too much in the randomness now that the domain of possibilities is so huge. For example, one could create a site (which means that it’s already been created) that uses truly random ways to create a set of links to Web pages. Randomized Page Roulette. But how long do you think you would spend visiting those pages if they’re truly random? The list would be serendipitous but highly unlikely to be either relevant or interesting.

So, instead of serendipity, think about how Facebook could provide us with interesting links instead of links it knows we’ll like. It could use its awesome Social Graph to guess at enticing content that is outside our normal interests. These links would would have the sort of appeal that Reddit does, especially if it were marked as a stab and what you’ll find interesting rather than as stuff FB is confident you’ll like.

These links would be a powerful addition to Facebook’s value, for nothing is more stimulating to us than the discovery of something unexpectedly interesting or, even better, the discovering a new unexpected interest.

Most important from my point of view as a non-shareholder in Facebook, it would use what Facebook knows about us to expand our vision rather than adding another brick to the walled garden of our existing interests.

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