Joho the Blog » too big to know

January 16, 2014


A friend is looking into the best way for a city to publish its codes and ordinances to make them searchable and reusable. What are the best schemas or ontologies to use?

I work in a law school library so you might think I’d know. Nope. So I asked a well-informed mailing list. Here’s what they have suggested, more or less in their own words:

Any other suggestions?

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December 28, 2013

[2b2k] From thinkers to memes

The history of Western philosophy usually has a presumed shape: there’s a known series of Great Men (yup, men) who in conversation with their predecessors came up with a coherent set of ideas. You can list them in chronological order, and cluster them into schools of thought with their own internal coherence: the neo-Platonists, the Idealists, etc. Sometimes, the schools and not the philosophers are the primary objects in the sequence, but the topology is basically the same. There are the Big Ideas and the lesser excursions, the major figures and the supporting players.

Of course the details of the canon are always in dispute in every way: who is included, who is major, who belongs in which schools, who influenced whom. A great deal of scholarly work is given over to just such arguments. But there is some truth to this structure itself: philosophers traditionally have been shaped by their tradition, and some have had more influence than others. There are also elements of a feedback loop here: you need to choose which philosophers you’ll teach in philosophy courses, so you you act responsibly by first focusing on the majors, and by so doing you confirm for the next generation that the ones you’ve chosen are the majors.

But I wonder if in one or two hundred years philosophers (by which I mean the PT-3000 line of Cogbots™) will mark our era as the end of the line — the end of the linear sequence of philosophers. Rather than a sequence of recognized philosophers in conversation with their past and with one another, we now have a network of ideas being passed around, degraded by noise and enhanced by pluralistic appropriation, but without owners — at least without owners who can hold onto their ideas long enough to be identified with them in some stable form. This happens not simply because networks are chatty. It happens not simply because the transmission of ideas on the Internet occurs through a p2p handoff in which each of the p’s re-expresses the idea. It happens also because the discussion is no longer confined to a handful of extensively trained experts with strict ideas about what is proper in such discussions, and who share a nano-culture that supersedes the values and norms of their broader local cultures.

If philosophy survives as anything more than the history of thought, perhaps we will not be able to outline its grand movements by pointing to a handful of thinkers but will point to the webs through which ideas passed, or, more exactly, the ideas around which webs are formed. Because no idea passes through the Web unchanged, it will be impossible to pretend that there are “ideas-in-themselves” — nothing like, say, Idealism which has a core definition albeit with a history of significant variations. There is no idea that is not incarnate, and no incarnation that is not itself a web of variations in conversation with itself.

I would spell this out for you far more precisely, but I don’t know what I’m talking about, beyond an intuition that the tracks end at the trampled field in which we now live.


December 1, 2013

High-contrast transparency – How Glenn Greenwald could look like a monopolist

Glenn Greenwald mounts a mighty and effective defense against the charge leveled by Mark Ames at that Greenwald and Laura Poitras are “monopolizing” and “privatizing” the 50,000-200,000 NSA documents entrusted to them by Edward Snowden.

Unlike Greenwald, I do think “it’s a question worth asking,” as Ames puts it — rather weasily, since his post attempt really is about supplying an answer. It’s worth asking because of the new news venture funded by Pierre Omidyar that has hired Greenwald and Poitras. Greenwald argues (among other things) that the deal has nothing to do with profiting from their access to the Snowden papers; in fact, he says, by the time the venture gets off the ground, there may not be any NSA secrets left to reveal. But one can imagine a situation in which a newspaper hires a journalist with unique access to some highly newsworthy information in order to acquire and control that information. In this case, we have contrary evidence: Greenwald and Poitras have demonstrated their courage and commitment.

Greenwald’s defense overall is, first, that he and Poitras (Bart Gellman plays a lesser role in the article) have not attempted to monopolize the papers so far. On the contrary, they’ve been generous and conscientious in spreading the the revelations to papers around the world. Second, getting paid for doing this is how journalism works.

To be fair, Ames’ criticism isn’t simply that Greenwald is making money, but that Omidyar can’t be trusted. I disagree, albeit without pretending to have any particular insight into Omidyar’s (or anyone’s) soul. (I generally have appreciated Omidyar’s work, but so what?) We do have reason to trust Greenwald, however. It’s inconceivable to me that Greenwald would let the new venture sit on NSA revelations for bad reasons.

But I personally am most interested in why these accusations have traction at all.

Before the Web, the charge that Greenwald is monopolizing the information wouldn’t even have made sense because there wasn’t an alternative. Yes, he might have turned the entire cache over to The Guardian or the New York Times, but then would those newspapers look like monopolists? No, they’d look like journalists, like stewards. Now there are options. Snowden could have posted the cache openly on a Web site. He could have created a torrent so that they circulate forever. He could have given them to Wikileaks curate. He could have sent them to 100 newspapers simultaneously. He could have posted them in encrypted form and have given the key to the Dalai Lama or Jon Stewart. There are no end of options.

But Snowden didn’t. Snowden wanted the information curated, and redacted when appropriate. He trusted his hand-picked journalists more than any newspaper to figure out what “appropriate” means. We might disagree with his choice of method or of journalists, but we can understand it. The cache needs editing, contextualization, and redaction so that we understand it, and so that the legitimate secrets of states are preserved. (Are there legitimate state secrets? Let me explain: Yes.) Therefore, it needs stewardship.

No so incidentally, the fact that we understand without a hiccup why Snowden entrusted individual journalists with the information, rather than giving it to even the most prestigious of newspapers, is another convincing sign of the collapse of our institutions.

It’s only because we have so many other options that entrusting the cache to journalists committed to stewarding it into the public sphere could ever be called “monopolizing” it. The word shouldn’t make any sense to us in this environment, yet it is having enough traction that Greenwald reluctantly wrote a long post defending himself. Given that the three recipients of the Snowden cache have been publishing it in newspapers all over the world makes them much less “monopolists” than traditional reporters are. Greenwald only needed to defend himself from this ridiculous charge because we now have a medium that can do what was never before possible: immediately and directly publish sets of information of any size. And we have a culture (in which I happily and proudly associate) that says openness is the default. But defaults were made to be broken. That’s why they’re defaults and not laws of nature or morality.

Likewise, when Ames’ criticizes Greenwald for profiting from these secrets because he gets paid as a journalist (which is separate from the criticism that working for Omidyar endangers the info — a charge I find non-credible), the charge makes even the slightest sense only because of the Web’s culture of Free, which, again I am greatly enthusiastic about. As an institution of democracy, one might hope that newspapers would be as free as books in the public library — which is to say, the costs are hidden from the user — but it’s obvious what the problems are with government-funded news media. So, journalists get paid by the companies that hire them, and this by itself could only ever look like a criticism in an environment where Free is the default. We now have that environment, even if enabling journalism is one of the places where Free just doesn’t do the entire job.

That the charge that Glenn Greenwald is monopolizing or privatizing the Snowden information is even comprehensible to us is evidence of just how thoroughly the Web is changing our defaults and our concepts. Many of our core models are broken. We are confused. These charges are further proof, as if we needed it.


November 20, 2013

[liveblog][2b2k] David Eagleman on the brain as networks

I’m at re comm 13, an odd conference in Kitzbühel, Austria: 2.5 days of talks to 140 real estate executives, but the talks are about anything except real estate. David Eagleman, a neural scientist at Baylor, and a well-known author, is giving a talk. (Last night we had one of those compressed conversations that I can’t wait to be able to continue.)

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.

How do we know your thinking is in your brain? If you damage your finger, you don’t change, but damage to your brain can change basic facets of your life. “The brain is the densest representation of who you are.” We’re the only species trying to figure out our own progamming language. We’ve discovered the most complicated device in the universe: our own brains. Ten billion neurons. Every single neuron contains the entire human genome and thousands of protens doing complicated computations. Each neuron is is connected to tens of thousands of its neighbors, meaning there are 100s of trillions of connections. These numbers “bankrupt the language.”

Almost all of the operations of the brain are happening at a level invisible to us. Taking a drink of water requires a “lightning storm” of acvitity at the neural level. This leads us to a concept of the unconscious. The conscious part of you is the smallest bit of what’s happening in the brain. It’s like a stowaway on a transatlantic journey that’s taking credit for the entire trip. When you think of something, your brain’s been working on it for hours or days. “It wasn’t really you that thought of it.”

About the unconscious: Psychologists gave photos of women to men and asked them to evaluate how attractive they are. Some of the photos were the same women, but with dilated eyes. The men rated them as being more attractive but none of them noticed the dilation. Dilated eyes are a sign of sexual readiness in women. Men made their choices with no idea of why.

More examples: In the US, if your name is Dennis or Denise, you’re more likely to become a dentist. These dentists have a conscious narrative about why they became dentists that misses the trick their brain has played on them. Likewise, people are statistically more likely to marry someone whose first name begins with the same first letter as theirs. And, i you are holding a warm mug of coffee, you’ll describe the relationship with your mother as warmer than if you’re holding an iced cup. There is an enormous gap between what you’re doing and what your conscious mind is doing.

“We should be thankful for that gap.” There’s so much going on under the hood, that we need to be shielded from the details. The conscious mind gets in trouble when it starts paying attention to what it’s doing. E.g., try signing your name with both hands in opposite directions simultaneously: it’s easy until you think about it. Likewise, if you now think about how you steer when making a lane change, you’re likely to enact it wrong. (You actually turn left and then turn right to an equal measure.)

Know thyself, sure. But neuroscience teaches us that you are many things. The brain is not a computer with a single output. It has many networks that are always competing. The brain is like a parliament that debates an action. When deciding between two sodas, one network might care about the price, another about the experience, another about the social aspect (cool or lame), etc. They battle. David looks at three of those networks:

1. How does the brain make decisions about valuation? E.g., people will walk 10 mins to save 10 € on a 20 € pen but not on a 557 € suit. Also, we have trouble making comparisons of worth among disparate items unless they are in a shared context. E.g., Williams Sonoma had a bread baking machine for $275 that did not sell. Once they added a second one for $370, it started selling. In real estate, if a customer is trying to decide between two homes, one modern and one traditional, if you want them to buy the modern one, show them another modern one. That gives them the context by which they can decide to buy it.

Everything is associated with everything else in the brain. (It’s an associative network.) Coffee used to be $0.50. When Starbucks started, they had to unanchor it from the old model so they made the coffee houses arty and renamed the sizes. Having lost the context for comparison, the price of Starbucks coffee began to seem reasonable.

2. Emotional experience is a big part of decision making. If you’re in a bad-smelling room, you’ll make harsher moral decisions. The trolley dilemma: 5 people have been tied to the tracks. A trolley is approaching rapidly. You can switch the trolley to a track with only one person tied to it. Everyone would switch the trolley. But now instead, you can push a fat man onto the trolley to stop the car. Few would. In the second scenario, touching someone engages the emotional system. The first scenario is just a math problem. The logic and emotional systems are always fighting it out. The Greeks viewed the self as someone steering a chariot drawn by the white horse of reason and the black horse of passion. [From Plato's Phaedrus]

3. A lot of the machinery of the brain deals with other brains. We use the same circuitry to think about people andor corporations. When a company betrays us, our brain responds the way it would if a friend betrayed us. Traditional economics says customer interactions are short-term but the brain takes a much longer-range view. Breaches of trust travel fast. (David plays “United Breaks Guitars.”) Smart companies use social media that make you believe that the company is your friend.

The battle among these three networks drives decisions. “Know thyselves.”

This is unsettling. The self is not at the center. It’s like when Galileo repositioned us in the universe. This seemed like a dethroning of man. The upside is that we’ve discovered the Cosmos is much bigger, more subtle, and more magnificent than we thought. As we sail into the inner cosmos of the brain, the brain is much subtle and magnificent than we ever considered.

“We’ve found the most wondrous thing in the universe, and it’s us.”

Q: Won’t this let us be manipulated?

A: Neural science is just catching up with what advertisers have known for 100 years.

Q: What about free will?

A: My labs and others have done experiments, and there’s no single experiment in neuroscience that proves that we do or do not have free will. But if we have free will, it’s a very small player in the system. We have genetics and experiences, and they make brains very different from one another. I argue for a legal system that recognizes a difference between people who may have committed the same crime. There are many different types of brains.

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November 15, 2013

[2b2k] Big Data and the Commons

I’m at the Engaging Big Data 2013 conference put on by Senseable City Lab at MIT. After the morning’s opener by Noam Chomsky (!), I’m leading one of 12 concurrent sessions. I’m supposed to talk for 15-20 mins and then lead a discussion. Here’s a summary of what I’m planning on saying:

Overall point: To look at the end state of the knowledge network/Commons we want to get to

Big Data started as an Info Age concept: magnify the storage and put it on a network. But you can see how the Net is affecting it:

First, there are a set of values that are being transformed:
- From accuracy to scale
- From control to innovation
- From ownership to collaboration
- From order to meaning

Second, the Net is transforming knowledge, which is changing the role of Big Data
- From filtered to scaled
- From settled to unsettled and under discussion
- From orderly to messy
- From done in private to done in public
- From a set of stopping points to endless lilnks

If that’s roughly the case, then we can see a larger Net effect. The old Info Age hope (naive, yes, but it still shows up at times) was that we’d be able to create models that ultimate interoperate and provide an ever-increasing and ever-more detailed integrated model of the world. But in the new Commons, we recognize that not only won’t we ever derive a single model, there is tremendous strength in the diversity of models. This Commons then is enabled if:

  • All have access to all
  • There can be social engagement to further enrich our understanding
  • The conversations default to public

So, what can we do to get there? Maybe:

  • Build platforms and services
  • Support Open Access (and, as Lewis Hyde says, “beat the bounds” of the Commons regularly)
  • Support Linked Open Data

Questions if the discussion needs kickstarting:

  • What Big Data policies would help the Commons to flourish?
  • How can we improve the diversity of those who access and contribute to the Commons?
  • What are the personal and institutional hesitations that are hindering the further development of the Commons?
  • What role can and should Big Data play in knowledge-focused discussions? With participants who are not mathematically or statistically inclined?
  • Does anyone have experience with Linked Data? Tell us about it?


I just checked the agenda, which of course I should have done earlier, and discovered that of the 12 sessions today, 1211 are being led by men. Had I done that homework, I would not have accepted their invitation.


November 6, 2013

[2b2k] Is the Net shortcutting our kids out of learning?

I was invited to give a talk yesterday afternoon to the faculty at Brookline High School where all three of our children were educated, and that graduated my wife and both of her parents. Furthermore, the event was held in the Black Box, a performance space I watched our youngest child perform in many times. (Go T-Tones!) So, it was thrilling and quite intimidating, even though the new headmaster, Deb Holman [twitter: bhsheadmaster] could not be more welcoming and open.

There were some great (= hard) questions, and a lot of skepticism about my comments, but not all that much time to carry on a conversation. After most people left, a couple of teachers stayed to talk.

One said that she thoroughly disagrees with my generally positive characterization of the Internet. In her experience, it is where children go to get quick answers. Rather than provoking them and challenging them, the Net lets them get instant gratification, and shuts down their curiosity.

We talked for a while. Her experience certainly rings true. After all, I go to the Net for quick answers also, and if I had to write an assignment on, say, The Great Gatsby, and I wanted to finish it before The Walking Dead comes on, I’d be out on the Net. And I’d get it done much faster than in the old days when I’d have to go to the library.

I’m still not sure what to make of this phenomenon. Did the old library experience of looking things up in the card catalog or in the Periodical Index made me any more thoughtful than googling does now? In fact, I’m more likely to see more ideas and opinions on the Net than in a trip to the library. On the other hand, the convenience of the Net means that I can just look up some ideas rather than having to work through them myself; the Net is letting student short-circuit the process of forming ideas. Perhaps the old difficulty of accessing materials added friction that usefully slowed down thought. I don’t know. I don’t feel that way about my own experience, but I am not a high school student, and I’m pretty self-deluding to begin with.

Anyway, that’s pretty much the issue the second teacher brought up after the talk. Keep in mind that BHS has an extraordinary set of teachers, always caring and frequently quite inspiring. She is in the School Within a School, which is more loosely structured than the rest of BHS. When she gives writing assignments, she tells her students to come up with an idea that will surprise her, and to express it in their own voice. Very cool.

Her concern is that jangle of the Net keeps students from mulling over ideas. Thought comes from a private and individual place, she believes, and students need that stillness and aloneness.

I can’t disagree with her. I want students to understand — to experience — the value of solitude and quiet, and to have internalized enough information that they can have it at hand to play with and synthesize. And yet…

..I’m not convinced that private thought is realest thought. I know that who I am when I’m alone doesn’t feel more real than when I am with others, and in many ways feels less authentic; I’ve written before about the inner narrator who accompanies me when I visit someplace new alone, making me feel more crazy than authentic. In a similar way, I’m not ready to accept that private thinking is the best thinking or the most authentic thinking. It has its place, of course, but personally (data point of one!) I think best when engaged with others, or when I’m writing while imagining my words engaging with others.

We have, it seems to me, overvalued private thinking, which is certainly not to say that it has no value. We have likewise undervalued social thinking. But now We think in public, out loud, with others. Most of our public engagements of course are not particularly deep or thoughtful in any normal use of the term. That’s why we need to be educating our children to appreciate thinking out loud with others, and teaching them how to do it. It’s in these public multi-way discussions that ideas and knowledge develop.

While there are many ways in which public thinking can go wrong, it has the advantage of revealing the mechanisms of knowledge in all their fallibility. We are still carrying over the cultural wish for black box authorities whom we can trust simply because they were the ones who said it. We need to steer our children away from that wish for inhuman knowledge, and thus toward recognizing how ideas and knowledge actually develop. Public thinking does that. At least it should. And it will do it more if our children learn to always wonder how knowledge has been brought forward. Especially when the ideas seem so obvious.

This is one reason I find the “flipped classroom” idea so interesting. (Good discussion of this yesterday on On Point.) I was asked yesterday what I’d like BHS to do if I could have it do anything. I answered rather badly, but part of it would have to be that students learn how to engage with one another socially so that they build knowledge together, and this knowledge tolerates disagreement, is assumed to be public, and is aware of itself as a product of social engagement. Of course that happens already in classrooms — and more so (presumably) in flipped classrooms — but we should be preparing our students for doing this virtually as well as in real space because the “real” discussions will increasingly be online where there is a wealth of sources to draw upon and to argue about.

But it’s hard to see how we get there so long as we continue to assign papers and reports as the primary type of knowledge artifact, isn’t it? (I’m not even going to mention standardized testing.) Doing so implicitly tells students that knowing is what you do alone: foraging sources, coming back with useful bits, and then engaging in an internal thought process that renders them into one of the conventional written forms. In that frame, the Net looks like an uncurated library, overflowing with lies, studded with occasional truths.

Instead, students could be required to explore a topic together, in public (or at least in the protected public of their class), discussing, arguing, joking, and evaluating one another’s sources. In that frame, the Net looks like a set of discussions, not an information resource at the end of the Information Highway. After all, kids don’t come into a class interested in The Great Gatsby. The teacher will help them to see what’s interesting about the novel, which is crucial and not easy to do. But primarily we get interested in things through one another. My interest steers yours, and yours amplifies mine. Our interest in The Great Gatsby is mediated and amplified by our interest in one another. We make the world interesting together. The Net does this all the time. Papers and reports rarely do.In their pursuit of demonstrating mastery, they too often drive the interest right out of the topic — less so at a wonderful school like BHS where teachers ask students to write in their own voice and come up with ideas that surprise them both.

Anyway, I came out of the session very stimulated, very thankful that so many of my relatives had the great good luck to attend that institution, and ever thankful to our teachers.


October 21, 2013

Lessons from Reddit

I gave a webcast talk at Library2.013 titled “Lessons from Reddit.” It’s available as an mp4 for streaming or downloading here. (You might want to start about 3 minutes in, in order to save 3 minutes of your life.)

It was a bit discursive. I had a few topics I knew I wanted to talk about, but I just talked. Here are the topics (with start times), as drawn from the lowest-value slide deck ever:

  • Why this topic? 3:00

  • What is Reddit? 5:10

  • Conversations are engineered 11:17

  • We are constantly surprised by scale 23:25

  • We don’t have interests. Interests have us.30:25

  • The virtue of echo chambers 36:40

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October 10, 2013

[2b2k] Erik Martin on Reddit and journalism

Erik Martin is giving a talk at the Nieman Foundation. He’s the general manager of (Disclosure: We’re friendly.) He tells us that Reddit gets 5 billion page views per month, and 70 million unique visitors.

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.

Erik gives us a tour and some background. Every morning he clicks on the “Random” button and visits the subreddits (= topically-based pages within the site) the button gives him. He does so now, hitting subreddits such as bitch, i’m a bus, ukele, battlestations (office desks), and what’s this plant. Reddit, he says, is like a giant message board. You can create a board (subreddit) about anything. There are over 100,000 that get at least a post a day, and 6,000 that have substantial activity. All the subreddits are created by users, who also can create the page design. All the posts are voted up or down by users. Users also set the rules for subreddits. For example, at the Coversong subreddit, users have apparently decided all posts have to be videos.

Now he’s interviewed by Justin Ellis.

JE: How did you get to Reddit?

EM: He worked for Mammoth Records. It got bought by Disney. Then hecame a documentary filmmaker. Then marketing films and distributing them online. He read Hackers and Painters by Paul Graham) [great book]. He then read about Paul Graham’s Y Combinator incubator. He applied to do a documentary about it, but was rejected. Still, he was hooked. Reddit came out of the first round of projects. He saw Reddit and loved the unpredictability of it. “Every link as a rabbit hole you might go down.” He got to know the cofounders and said “IU want to find a way to work with Reddit because that’s what I’m doing with all my time.” Alexis Ohanian asked him to work on a TV pilot that was going to incorporate Reddit into a news show. But it didn’t work; the Internet part was an add-on. Then he got hired as a community manager at Reddit.

JE: Reddit has a lot of geography. What does it mean to be a community manager?

EM: He looked at it as being the manager of a band. He’d promote promising items. He’d try to keep things functioning. And he tried to make sure that the community didn’t get taken advantage of, e.g., when people didn’t link back to Reddit.

JE: When you create a subreddit and a crowd shows up, how does that happen?

EM: Sometimes it’s obvious why. But others we can’t figure it out. One of our most popular subreddits is Explain Like I’m Five. That one you know what you’re going to get. Same for Ask Me Anything. Those explode when hot topics arise.

JE: How does this community stay together so long?

EM: Some of it is the customization of subreddits.

JE: Because anyone can create a subreddit, Reddit has gotten into trouble from time to time. There have been some very creepy subreddits. What’s the guiding principle for what is allowable?

EM: Our philosophy is that it’s a site that has 5B page views, and we have 35 employees [so we can’t moderate everything]. If you’re going to function you have to have some rules, but they have to be relatively finite, relatively easy to understand, and relatively self-enforceable. So, we have six rules. We have added one or two throughout the years. We try to keep them simple. No spam. You can’t try to break the site. You can’t try to cheat. You can’t put people’s personal info up. You can’t have anything illegal. We added that you can’t have material that sexualizes minors. If we had one that said “Don’t be a jerk,” it wouldn’t be enfrceable. No one would agree about how it applies. So there’s tons of stuff on the site that we find horrible and offensive, but the site works best when we keep it open and governed by those simple rules.

JE: What responsibility do you think you have if you see something that you personally feel is wrong?

EM: What I find offensive is different from others around the world or other positions. People don’t come here because they think we have the best judgment about what’s offensive. Plus, you have all the context. E.g., people complain about the PicsOfDeadChildren subreddit. That’s obviously very offensive. But what if it were called “Child Autopsy Photos” and it put itself forward as presenting medical training photos. Or a subreddit about death. Or a subreddit about combat video. It’s beyond offensive. It’s people being killed. It gets very tricky.

JE: There have been 3 major stories illustrative of Reddit and citizen journalism: The Aurora movie theater shooting, the Boston Marathon bombing, and the shooting at the Navy Yard in DC. In the first, there was first person reporting. With the second, there was that but also the spreading of info from elsewhere and then the misidentification of one of the suspects in the bombing. With the third, someone created a subreddit to investigate what was happening, but you guys shut that down. What have you learned?

EM: In those three situations, the response of the community was the same as what you’d see offline: People trying to figure out what went on. Telling their story. Making jokes. Speculating about all kinds of things. Trying to make sense of what happened. Later on they were trying to help in some way. With Boston, it was different because the authorities wanted help from the public: they said if you have photos, upload them, etc. There was a subreddit where people were trying to identify the bombers, and that got a lot of attention. The actual subreddit where the Brown Univ. student was misidentified by name was actually the normal Boston subreddit, and it was removed after about an hour. That wasn’t good enough. That led to horrible consequences for that family.

So, what have we learned? We learned that people want to share, to talk, to help, to be a part of these huge events any way they can. We learned people can be callous and cavalier by mentioning people’s name. The vast majority were careful and thoughtful, but some were not. The Navy Yard subreddit was a joke. It had six posts, most from journalists satirizing the Boston bombing subreddit. It went against our rules and we shut it down after an hour.

JE: But you apologized after the Boston bombings…

EM: Absolutely. We do post-mortems and followsup. We did one when President Obama came on. So, yes, we apologized and talked aout what we can do better. And we also talked about the amazing things people did: people bringing their pets to parks in case people needed cute animal therapy, the sending of pizzas to EMTs and the police… We are an open source site in policy as well as code.

JE: Is it enough to do a post mortem? Newspapers issue corrections.

EM: There are thousands of subreddts, so there isn’t a way to reach everyone. We’re a platform, not a newspaper. We’re like Twitter or Youtube or WordPress. We don’t have a position on the veracity of one thing or another. I hope people learn to be more empathetic nandlearn that what you say on line has repercussions. But I don’t think we’re like a publication, and we’re not an editorial team.

JE: How do you see the role of journalism on Reddit? Why are people doing self-reporting?

EM: They want to be part of the story. They don’t want to be passie about what’s happening in the world. Even if
it’s uploading a meme. They’ve seen something start and then get big in a single day. Of course they want to share what’s happening in their neighborhood or share their thoughts about what’s going on in their govt Redditors vote 20M time a day.

JE: What’s the relation of journalisms and Reddit?

EM: We’re agnostic about what you’re linking to. But original reporting is more important than ever because people can find an audience. What’s happening on Reddit and what’s happening in the mainstream media happen to be in different hemispheres now but ultimately it’s the same thing. I hope people doing reporting will be active in a comment thread on Reddit or elsewhere.

JE: But you are creating content in some way, e.g., the Ask Me Anything’s where anyone can come in answer questions from the community. It’s very much like what media companies do.

EM: And in other Reddits people share recipes or workout routines. It’s like what you get in the media. It’s communicating, it’s story telling.

JE: How do you make money? You have ads and Reddit gold memberships.

EN: We don’t need to make a lot of money. We’re very lean. Our NY office is in a coworking space. We basically have ads for big movies, mobile phones, etc. We also have ads from mom and pop companies. Reddit Gold is a premium membership, $24.99/year. You get some extra features but most people do it to support the site. We have a secret Santa program (Reddit Gifts) that has an e-commerce site to help those exchanges and to make money.

JE: Reddit was purchased by Conde Nast and then spun off in 2011. How is it different?

EM: We started in 2005. Bought by Conde Nast in 2006. I started in 2008. Reddit was basically neglected by Conde: we were growing but there was a hiring freeze. OTOH, no one told us what to do. An example of how it made a difference: Before we were spun out, our ad operations was done through Conde, which is great for major magazines, not for a weird site where all you need is $5 to run an ad. So it didn’t make sense for us. We wanted an ad server that was fast and open source, which now we have.


Q: Any trends in the type of content being produced? Trending toward the absurd? Or what?

A: It gets harder and harder to think about overall trends because the site is becoming more fractious and disparate each day. I think people are really motivated by the unexpected. Our audience is increasingly cynical. We also have an audience that is increasingly idealistic. You see trends were people are more connected across national and geographical boundaries; if there’s a discussion on healthcare the top comments will be from people around the globe. And it’s always been possible to have the serious next to the ridiculous; the last remaining bulkheads are being whittled away.

Q: Can you remain content agnostic?

A: No, it’s not possible. We’re not content agnostic towards spam or personal information. We try to be as close to agnosstic as we can.

Q: How much does porn account for your content?

A: About 85% of the subreddits are safe for work. (The Trees subreddit is not because you could get in trouble looking at pictures of weed.) Porn is maybe 5-10%. Our biggest subreddits are the video subreddits, As Reddit, etc.

Q: Terrorists radicalize by looking at pictures of dead babies. Have you had to hand over who your users are to agencies trying to track people on Reddit trying to radicalize people?

A: User privacy is core but we comply with what we have to comply with.

Q: [me] Reddit used to have a strong culture. People knew the same references, were playing the same games, had the same general politics, etc. But that shared culture seems to be weakening as Reddit becomes more popular. Does this concern you??

A: Yes, there is a certain sense of shared community that’s being fractured. But it’s being migrated down the subreddits the way you’re more loyal to community or borough.

Q: [me] Can you say more about IAMA’s, which at their best are a quite remarkable journalist form of collaborative interview?

A: The exciting thing for me is to see that format seep into other subreddits. We actively are trying to encourage that. E.g., mayoral candidates should do AMAs in their city’s subreddit. Or scifi authors are doing them in the sf subreddits. It goes back to that idea of so much of the word being predictable. If you waatch watch an interview on even some of the great programs — Charlie Rose, for example — even if they’re really good, you know what to expect. With the Reddit AMA’s not only do you not know what sort of questions are going to be asked, since you can answer a question at any length, it ends up taking this unexpected terms. If you look at the calendar of upcoming IAMA’s, you don’t even know which ones are going to be popular, outside of a Bill Gates or Tom Hanks, but if you look at the top AMAs for a week it will be a celebrity, subway driver, person with a weird disease, and way down the list will be someone with a household name. It’s unpredictable, and it’s unpredictable to the person being interviewed. It’s very different from what you get on a press junket where people go into robot mode. The AMA format can be more fun for them the standard press interview.

Q: Tumbler did a lot of active outreach to media. You don’t go out to, say, Newsweek and ask if they want a subreddit.

A: Yes. It’s difficult for us to do. Tech News Today is a great subreddit. They don’t directly flog their content. PBS has done one. But it’s hard.

Q: A newspaper could have its own subreddit where their folks are doing AMA’s etc.

A: Yes. But curating and cultivating a subreddit is a lot of work. It’s hard enough getting journalists to participate in comments on their own site.

Q: Companies you wouldn’t expect have made editorial plays. E.g., Twitter has being hiring editorial staff. Why are they doing that?

A: We’ve done some of that to prime the pump. E.g., Adam Savage’s publicist would probably say no to a request for an AMA at a site that looks like it’s from the 1990s [like ours], but if I go out with a camera and ask him to respond to the top ten questions, they might say yes. But then they see that the AMA works. So we only do editorial work for pump priming.

Q: What’s up with the design?

A: Look at the big sites. Minimal but flexible platforms. When you start doing a more professional and complex design, you suddenly needing 10x more people, and then you need 10x the money…But subreddits can monkey with the CSS. They can even change the Gold button, our “buy” button. Rich text works.

Q: For a traditional news org, the misidentification of the Boston Bomber would have been very expensive. Who owns the error from a legal perspective, in the US and elsewhere?

A: In the US, platforms are not responsible for what people say. The person who says it is responsible. I don’t know if Reddit could exist as a Canadian company. People give us a non-exclusive contract to display their words.

Q: But because you have some rules, doesn’t that make you responsible?

A: The more you monitor, the more responsible you are. But everything on the site is determined by human behavior. We are a platform for people discussing things. We’re not a publication. We don’t have editorial control.

Q: Is one of your 35 people a lawyer?

A: No.

Q: So when you get subpoenas…?

A: We’ve had to learn more than we want. We also have very good lawyers we consult with when we need to.

Q: The site in 5 years?

A: I don’t know. The users have better ideas than we do. All we try to do is take ideas they develop and help make them happen. So, in 5 years I think Reddit will be in more countries, more cross-country conversation. We have great engineers so we’ll be doing more interesting things. In 5 years I hope there will be 1,000 Reddit apps, using Reddit in novel ways that I couldn’t come up with. I never imagined that Reddit would be useful for live events. People are using our “edit” button 50/hour for this, which is not what the button is intended for, and Reddit’s not even very good at. People have created a site that reorganizes Reddit in chronological order and they can do that because we’re open source and don’t send lawyers after them. If we evolve in 5 yrs it will be because people in the community take it in those new directions.

Q: Venture capitalists?

A: Y-Combinator’s original investment was $20K. We were self-sustaining until Conde Nast bought us. We also had a very small angel round in the past year, around $1M. Very small. We’ve never spent a lot of money so we’ve never had to raise a lot. We’re close to break even now.

Q: Have any news events truly originated with Reddit?

A: As far as I know, one of the first reports on the Aurora story was from someone at the theater, before there was anything known to the media. The biggest story where Reddit was involved in the story was probably the SOPA/PIPA blackouts. Someone started to go after GoDaddy: “I’m moving 75 domains from GoDaddy” and it grew, and the next day GoDaddy flipped its position. Also, someone went after Paul Ryan and he ended up changing his mind.

Q: How can I troll Reddit for news stories?

A: When a new Android comes out, reporters go to Reddit to see what’s new in that version. I don’t know why more reporters don’t go to the relevant subreddits and ask for help on a story.

Q: We reporters are competitive.

A: In the sports world, you routinely see stories getting updated based upon information at Reddit.

Q: News orgs are trying to figure out how to engage with their audiences via social media. Advice?

A: Popular Science killed comments. Fine. You don’t have to have comments. But if you have them, you should pay attention to them. E.g., Roger Ebert would edit your comment as an admin, which is a terrible practice, but people didn’t mind because he was doing so to respond to their comments. I don’t understand why in general comments in 2013 are not all threaded and vote-able. Most are still in reverse chron, highlighting the latest. And most seem to be trying to hide their comments.

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June 15, 2013

[2b2k][eim] My Stuttgart syllabus

I’ve just finished leading two days of workshops at University of Stuttgart as part of my fellowship at the Internazionales Zentrum für Kultur- und Technikforschung. (No, I taught in English.) This was for me a wonderful experience. First of all, the students were engaged, smart, talked from diverse standpoints, and fun. Second, it reminded me how to teach. I had so much trouble trying to structure sessions, feeling totally unsure how one does so. But the eight 1.5 hour sessions reminded me why I loved teaching.

For my own memory, here are the sessions (and if any of you were there and took notes, I’d love to see them):


#1 Cyberutopianism, technodeterminism, and Internet exceptionalism defined, with JP Barlow’s Declaration of the Independent of Cyberspace as an example. Class introductions.

#2 Information Age to Age of Connected. Why Ted Nelson’s Xanadu did not succeed the way the Web did. Rough technical architecture of the Net and (perhaps) its embedded political values. Hyperlinks.

#3 Digital order. Everything is miscellaneous? From information Retrieval to search engines. Schema-based databases to tagging.

#4 Networked knowledge. What knowledge looks like once it’s been freed of paper. Four challenges to networked knowledge (with many more added by the students.)

On Saturday we talked about topics that the students decided were interesting:

#1 Mobile net. Is Facebook making us more or less social? Why do we fill up every interstice by using Facebook on mobiles? What does this say about us and the notion of the self?

#2 Downloading. Do you download music illegally? What is your justification? How might artists respond? Why is the term “intellectual property” so loaded?

#3 Education. What makes a great in-person course? What makes for a miserable one? Oddly, many of the characteristics of miserable classes are also characteristics of MOOCs. What might we do about that? How much of this is caused by the fact that MOOCs are construed as courses in the traditional sense?

#4 Internet culture. Is there such a thing? If there are many, is any particular one to be privileged? How does the Net look to a culture that is dedicated to warding off what it says as corrupting influences? End with LolCatBible and the astounding TheJohnnyCashProject

Thank you, students. This experience meant a great deal to me.


June 2, 2013

[2b2k] Knowledge in its natural state

I gave a 20 minute talk at the Wired Next Fest in Milan on June 1, 2013. Because I needed to keep the talk to its allotted time and because it was being simultaneously translated into Italian, I wrote it out and gave a copy to the translators. Inevitably, I veered from the script a bit, but not all that much. What follows is the script with the veerings that I can remember. The paragraph breaks track to the slide changes

(I began by thanking the festival, and my progressive Italian publisher, Codice Edizioni Codice are pragmatic idealists and have been fantastic to work with.)

Knowledge seems to fit so perfectly into books. But to marvel at how well Knowledge fits into books…

… is to marvel at how well each rock fits into its hole in the ground. Knowledge fits books because we’ve shaped knowledge around books and paper.

And knowledge has taken on the properties of books and paper. Like books, knowledge is ordered and orderly. It is bounded, just as books stretch from cover to cover. It is the product of an individual mind that then is filtered. It is kept private and we’re not responsible for it until it’s published. Once published, it cannot be undone. It creates a privileged class of experts, like the privileged books that are chosen to be published and then chosen to be in a library

Released from the bounds of paper, knowledge takes on the shape of its new medium, the Internet. It takes on the properties of its new medium just it had taken on the properties of its old paper medium. It’s my argument today that networked knowledge assumes a more natural shape. Here are some of the properties of new, networked knowledge

1. First, because it’s a network, it’s linked.

2. These links have no natural stopping point for your travels. If anything, the network gives you temptations to continue, not stopping points.

3. And, like the Net, it’s too big for any one head, Michael Nielsen, the author of Reinventing Discovery, uses the discovery of the Higgs Boson as an example. That discovery required gigantic networks of equipment and vast networks of people. There is no one person who understands everything about the system that proved that that particle exists. That knowledge lives in the system, in the network.

4. Like the net, networked knowledge is in perpetual disagreement. There is nothing about which everyone agrees. We like to believe this is a temporary state, but after thousands of years of recorded history, we can now see for sure that we are never going to agree about anything. The hope for networked knoweldge is that we’re learning to disagree more fruitfully, in a linked environment

5. And, as the Internet makes very clear, we are fallible creatures. We get everything wrong. So, networked knowledge becomes more credible when it acknowledges fallibility. This is very different from the old paper based authorities who saw fallibility as a challenge to their authority.

6. Finally, knowledge is taking on the humor of the Internet. We’re on the Internet voluntarily and freed of the constrictions of paper, it turns out that we like being with one another. Even when the topic is serious like this topic at Reddit [a discussion of a physics headline], within a few comments, we’re making jokes. And then going back to the serious topic. Paper squeezed the humor out of knowledge. But that’s unnatural.

These properties of networked knowledge are also properties of the Network. But they’re also properties that are more human and more natural than the properties of traditional knowledge.

But there’s one problem:

There is no such thing as natural knowledge. Knowledge is a construct. Our medium may have changed, but we haven’t, at least so it seems. And so we’re not free to reinvent knowledge any way we’d like. Significant problems based on human tendencies are emerging. I’ll point to four quick problem areas.

First, We see the old patterns of concentration of power reemerge on the Net. Some sites have an enormous number of viewers, but the vast majority of sites have very few. [Slide shows Clay Shirky’s Power Law distribution chart, and a photo of Clay]

Albert-László Barabási has shown that this type of clustering is typical of networks even in nature, and it is certainly true of the Internet

Second, on the Internet, without paper to anchor it, knowledge often loses its context. A tweet…

Slips free into the wild…

It gets retweeted and perhaps loses its author

And then gets retweeted and lose its meaning. And now it circulates as fact. [My example was a tweet about the government not allowing us to sell body parts morphing into a tweet about the government selling body parts. I made it up.]

Third, the Internet provides an incentive to overstate.

Fourth, even though the Net contains lots of different sorts of people and ideas and thus should be making us more open in our beliefs…

… we tend to hang out with people who are like us. It’s a natural human thing to prefer people “like us,” or “people we’re comfortable with.” And this leads to confirmation bias — our existing beliefs get reinforced — and possibly to polarization, in which our beliefs become more extreme.

This is known as the echo chamber problem, and it’s a real problem. I personally think it’s been overstated, but it is definitely there.

So there are four problems with networked knowledge. Not one of them is new. Each has a analog from before the Net.

  1. The loss of context has always been with us. Most of what we believe we believe because we believe it, not because of evidence. At its best we call it, in English, common sense. But history has shown us that common sense can include absurdities and lead to great injustices.

  2. Yes, the Net is not a flat, totally equal place. But it is far less centralized than the old media were, where only a handful of people were allowed to broadcast their ideas and to choose which ideas were broadcast.

  3. Certainly the Internet tends towards overstatement. But we have had mass media that have been built on running over-stated headlines. This newspaper [Weekly World News] is a humor paper, but it’s hard to distinguish from serious broadcast news.

  4. And speaking of Fox, yes, on the Internet we can simply stick with ideas that we already agree with, and get more confirmed in our beliefs. But that too is nothing new. The old media actually were able to put us into even more tightly controlled echo chambers. We are more likely to run into opposing ideas — and even just to recognize that there are opposing ideas — on the Net than in a rightwing or leftwing newspaper.

It’s not simply that all the old problems with knowledge have reemerged. Rather, they’ve re-emerged in an environment that offers new and sometimes quite substantial ways around them.

  1. For example, if something loses its context, we can search for that context. And links often add context.

  2. And, yes, the Net forms hubs, but as Clay Shirky and Chris Anderson have pointed out, the Net also lets a long tail form, so that voices that in the past simply could not have been heard, now can be. And the activity in that long tail surpasses the attention paid to the head of the tail.

  3. Yes, we often tend to overstate things on the Net, but we also have a set of quite powerful tools for pushing back. We review our reviews. We have sites like the well-regarded American site,, that will tell you if some Internet rumor is true. Snopes is highly reliable. Then we have all of the ways we talk with one another on the Net, evaluating the truth of what we’ve read there.

  4. And, the echo chamber is a real danger, but we also have on the Net the occasional fulfillment of our old ideal of being able to have honest, respectful conversations with people with whom we fundamentally disagree. These examples are from Reddit, but there are others.

So, yes, there are problems of knowledge that persist even when our technology of knowledge changes. That’s because these are not technical problems so much as human problems…

…and thus require human solutions. And the fundamental solution is that we need to become more self-aware about knowledge.

Our old technology — paper — gave us an idea of knowledge that said that knowledge comes from experts who are filtered, printed, and then it’s settled, because that’s how books work. Our new technology shows us we are complicit in knowing. In order to let knowledge get as big as our new medium allows, we have to recognize that knowledge comes from all of us (including experts), it is to be linked, shared, discussed, argued about, made fun of, and is never finished and done. It is thoroughly ours – something we build together, not a product manufactured by unknown experts and delivered to us as if it were more than merely human.

The required human solution therefore is to accept our human responsibility for knowledge, to embrace and improve the technology that gives knowledge to us –- for example, by embracing Open Access and the culture of linking and of the Net, and to be explicit about these values.

Becoming explicit is vital because our old medium of knowledge did its best to hide the human qualities of knowledge. Our new medium makes that responsibility inescapable. With the crumbling of the paper authorities, it bcomes more urgent than ever that we assume personal and social responsibility for what we know.

Knowing is an unnatural act. If we can remember that –- remember the human role in knowing — we now have the tools and connections that will enable even everyday knowledge to scale to a dimension envisioned in the past only by the mad and the God-inspired.

Thank you.


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