Joho the Blog » exceptionalism

November 7, 2010

The Net is old, the Net is new.: Opening remarks at Tech@State

I had the honor of making very brief opening remarks at the State Departments Tech@State twitter Civil Society 2.0 unconference on Friday hosted by the World Bank. The room was full of people using tech to help others around the world. Heres roughly = I dont have my notes what I said:

For no obvious reason, over the past couple of weeks, two things keep coming to mind.

First, Ive found myself thinking about the first time I touched the keyboard of my own computer. It was a Kay Pro II, so it must have been in the early 1980s. I was a humanities major, but as soon as I saw a green letter show up on the tiny screen, I was fascinated. I knew it wasnt mechanical, of course, so I knew that between the key press and the glowing letter, there was logic. I was fascinated by how logic could make things happen in the real world.

Second, a question has come up a couple of times [most recently in correspondence with AKMA]: Is the Net showing us something new about ourselves, or something old? After all, the world of the Net is very weird when compared to what were used to. We think of it as a space, but its geography is bizarre: e.g., a link is a door that lets you enter a room and then vanishes behind you. If this new world is so bizarre, why have we embraced it so quickly and thoroughly?

Now, Im going to guess that we in this room believe that the Net is something new and important on the order of the printing press, or maybe fire. It works by lowering hurdles. First, it lowers the hurdles to creating new things, because we can turn logic into reality. You could do that with computers, but with the Net, we can build things together, and what we build is more easily public. Second, the Net lowers the hurdles to connecting with one another.

And, what is it that we each want to do when we wake up in the morning? Create and connect.

The Net, at its best, liberates us from old restrictions so that we can more easily do that which we have always longed to do, and that which is the best of being human: creating and connecting. Thats why this very new technology feels so familiar.

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September 24, 2010

Internet exceptionalism

Because of preceding comments at the little confab on “The Net as a human right?” I went to, I decided that it might be worthwhile to defend Internet Exceptionalism, since that’s the basis for the claim that access to the Net ought to be a human right. So, I opened my brief comments by pointing to three exceptional things about the Internet [abbreviated]:

1. As a medium, we use it for information, communication, and sociality. It’s hard to find another medium that combines those three uses and is becoming dominant in all three. This matters because it means we go to the Net to ask a question and end up making friends.

2. The Internet scales from one to billions, group to any size group. It is different at every scale.

3. Telephones were invented for speaking, and cars were invented for driving, but the Internet was not invented for any single use. That is the source of its value, and certainly of its economic value. It’s why we need to preserve Net neutrality. It’s also why the Net does not fit into any frame perfectly.

Then I pointed to three things we learn from this exceptional invention. 1. We create unimaginable things when we are put in a connected environment that has been made permission-free. 2. Collaboration is natural. 3. We will never ever agree about anything.

But, does that exceptionalism mean that the Internet ought to be made a human right? Nah.

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September 19, 2010

The Internet as a human right

I’m on a panel at a State Dept. event this week. The panel is about the Net as a human right. Here are some initial thoughts about what I might say, for your kicking-around pleasure:


I count myself as an Internet exceptionalist. Here are three ways I think the Net is unique or close to it: 1. It is the only medium we use for information, communication, and primary sociality. 2. The Internet scales from personal to global in each of those three dimensions (although it’s different at every scale). 3. Unlike most other technology, the Internet isn’t for anything in particular. (This last, by the way, is an argument for preserving Net neutrality.) And I am an exceptionalist not just in regard to the Net as a technology. I believe it is having transformative effects on our cultures, institutions, economies, governments…

Even so, I want this morning to argue against claiming Internet access as a human right. But I want to began with a caveat to that, as well, because I am of at least two minds about this. I happened to have been at the event on January 21, 2010 where Secretary Clinton called on the UN Human Rights Council to adopt five new Internet freedoms: freedom of expression, of worship, from want, from fear, to connect. I was thrilled to hear the Secretary of State express her understanding of the importance — the exceptional importance — of the Internet. And, of course I too want an Internet that is open to all ideas and that is understood to be ours.

But…

There are at least two ways to take the call to claim Net access as a human right. The first is the stronger claim: People have the right to Internet access, just as they have a right to food and shelter. The second expresses qualities of the Internet to which people should have access.

Secretary Clinton seemed to be talking about this second sense of Internet human rights. The first four of her five proposed Net rights, of course, apply existing human rights to the Internet domain. About the fifth, the freedom to connect, she said: “…governments should not prevent people from connecting to the internet, to websites, or to each other,” analogizing it to freedom of assembly. I like those five freedoms, but the analogy doesn’t quite work. Everyone has a physical ability to assemble, but not everyone has access to the Net. The right to connect seems more like a right to education or to water — a right that requires a positive action from the government, not a governmental duty to stay out of the way. So, suppose there is no Internet access in your country. Does that count as blocking your right to connect? If the first four Internet freedoms are about the quality of access, like adding to the right to water that the water must be clean and pure, doesn’t that impy that the government has to supply Internet access in the first place, just as it has to supply access to water? This second, weaker sense of access to the Internet as a human right turns out to entail the stronger sense as well.

So, do we want Internet access to be one of those stronger rights, something you can demand of your government? Take a look at the U.N.’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Freedom from slavery. Freedom from torture. Equal protection under the law. Do we really want to add to that list “The right to have an Internet connection”?

Oh, the practical problems! Would a 28kpbs dial-up connection suffice, or would anything less than, say, 5mbps symmetric be a violation of our human rights? How open and non-discriminatory does the Net access have to be to satisfy our rights as humans? Does Thailand’s blocking of irreverent YouTubes of their king count as a violation of human rights? How about Germany’s preventing eBay from listing Nazi memorabilia? How about the pressure brought onCraigslist to censor its adult services section? If Comcast blocks BitTorrent, can we take it to the UN? We’re having enough trouble getting Net neutrality asserted by the FCC; do we really want to take on making Net neutrality a new human right?

Of course, if we really felt that access to the Net is a human right, we’d take a best-effort stab at the specifics. After all, we can’t really define exactly what the parameters of free speech are, but we still count it as a human right. So, I think it comes down to whether we think the Internet is so exceptional that it should be added to the list of material objects to which we have a fundamental right. So far, the only material objects to which we have asserted rights as humans are tied to our biological nature: food, water, shelter. Other human rights have to do with core human values, such as freedom and the flourishing that education enables. The Net, too, enables a set of interactions and relations that feel truly fundamental to what it means to be human: Communication, creativity, economic activity, free expression, collaborative action, community. So, perhaps the Internet should be the exception, the one piece of non-biologically necessary technology so central to our core values that it is the object of an official human right.

To address this, we need to ask what makes something a human right. Let me suggest two types of justifications.

One useful way to think about human rights is to say that they happen to be where the globe’s nations agree to draw the line. This accords with the origins of the UDHR: In 1946 a group of countries gathered to outlaw behavior that the world agreed was just too awful to countenance, in the face of a world war that was horrible beyond recounting. This line of justification for human rights depends upon a global sense of where to draw the line when it comes to intolerable actions. If lack of Net access starts to strike the world’s governments as being on a par with starving one’s own citizens, then Net access might get added as a human right. We are not at that point yet, however.

Another way to think about human rights is to say that they spring from facts about the nature of being human and even from the nature of being moral in the first place. (Yeah, I know an ought can’t come from an is. We’ll talk later.) There is a right to food and shelter because humans are animals with biological needs. There is a right to education because humans are creatures of the mind. There is a human right to equal justice because of the nature of moral imperatives themselves: behaving morally entails denying special treatment for oneself and for those one happens to prefer. So, what is it about human nature (if I may use such a term) that implies a right to access the Internet? Perhaps that we are social creatures, so there is a right for us to engage with one another. This, for me, is the most convincing argument. But, if the Net fulfills our innate need to be social, so do parks, cafes, and playgrounds, and it would be foolish to demand any of those “technologies” as a human right. Like parks and playgrounds, the Net is a means to fulfilling other rights spelled out in the UDHR. Specifying Internet access as a human right would express how important we think the Net is, but would raise unintended practical, political, and economic issues.

You don’t have to assert something as a fundamental human right to believe that it provides a social good of deep, deep of value. So, I remain an Internet exceptionalist and fanatic. I am all in favor of providing Internet access to the world, preferably for free. (Of course, I’d first want to make sure everyone can read and write, has electricity, has a full belly, and has access to medical care, so that they can use the Net in the first place. Also, so they can live.) Access to an open Internet is an incredible social good. We who have such access should cherish it, use it, spread it, share it, and fight to keep it open. Nevertheless, calling Net access a human right blurs the line between social goods and demandable human rights. That does not bring the Net to the world any faster, and diminishes the effect of claims of genuine human rights.


[LATER that day:] I was thinking about this some more and realized that I’d probably sign a petition to make Internet access a human right. So, you can see that I’m a bit conflicted about this. I’d sign it because I think it’s good to express to the world how important I think Net access is, not because I expect or even want Net access to be a basic human right at this point. Once we’re all fed, employed and medicated, it’d be great to have Net as a human right. Even better, it’d be great to just put up some satellites and take that first step toward free, universal access.

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February 5, 2010

[ahole] Cyberutopianism, technodeterminism, Web exceptionalism

In the spirit of my Be A Bigger A-hole Resolution, here’s a video of my talk at Reboot this summer. It leads to “Is the Web moral” segment, based on a talk I gave at the Drupalcon a few months before.

In it, I claim to be a cyberutopian (gosh the Web is wonderful) and a Web exceptionalist (the Web is way different from what came before), but not a technodeterminist (the exceptional goodness of the Web won’t happen by itself.)

[Later that day:] Ok, fine, if I’m going to stay true to my Resolution: I’m going to be on HubSpot.tv today at 4pm EST, talking mainly about cluetrainy marketing stuff, I think, although I hope we also touch on some other stuff as well. (I think I’m going to start prefacing the titles of this a-holic posts appropriately.)

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October 5, 2009

Enterprise 2.0: The phrase, the concept, the time scale

Terrific post by Euan Semple (responding to a post by Stowe Boyd) about why he does not love the phrase “Enterprise 2.0″: “…it’s too narrow, too corporate and too managerial!”

The name will work itself out, as names do. I have problems with entire “2.0” meme — I like that it calls attention to important changes, but am uncomfortable about its implication of discontinuity. But, the phrase has stuck, and it has had the advantage of unsticking lots of thinking. The same for “Enterprise 2.0.” I understand Stowe and Euan’s discomfort, but all names are inadequate, and “Enterprise 2.0″ gives some businesses a frame and a justification for thinking about changing. The phrase’s author, Andrew McAfee, probably agrees the name is imperfect, and probably agrees with much of what Euan says about the changes awaiting business. [Disclosure: Andrew is a Berkman Fellow. And Euan, Stowe, and Andrew are all friends of mine. And, while I'm at it, Euan's post positively cites something I once said.]

Beyond Euan’s discussion of the phrase itself, he maintains a Web Exceptionalist and Web Utopian position, albeit he is a Slow Utopian. Not that Euan’s slow. On the contrary. But he believes the changes businesses are going through are deep and will take decades to accomplish. After all, as he says, “‘the Internet has been around for the best part of 30 years and most people don’t know what the back button on their browser is for!”

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September 22, 2009

Call-in on Web Exceptionalism

I’m going to be on a call-in webcasty thing tomorrow (Thursday) as part of the Supernova series. You can see it here or call (347) 945-6578. It starts at 1pm EDT (Boston) time.

The topic is: Is the Web really exceptional? Or is it Yet Another Communications Medium? Or something else?

I’m probably going to say that it’s exceptional – that is, unique – in some important ways:. It’s hard to find another medium that works well at virtually every scale. It’s hard to find another medium that lowers the hurdle to global communication so far (although posting something that’s accessible to the world hardly means that the world will access it). And hyperlinks are unique and important.

Of course, it’s not clear what the consequences are of those exceptional characteristics.

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April 17, 2009

[ugc3] Understanding evolving online behavior

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Over-emphasizing small points. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are hereby warned.

John Horrigan of Pew Internet and American Life, gives a “non-Koolaid” presentation. He says that about 12% of Internet users have a blog. The percentage of people doing some form of content sharing is not increasing much at all. The demographics says that 18-24 do the most sharing, and then it goes down in pretty much a straight line. The change over time is not distributed evenly across age groups. Younger adults are turning away from the 6 core UGC behaviors, the 24-35s are increasing. The rest: not much change.

But people are increasingly going to social networkingIf UGC is migrating to rules-based environments, is it a good bargain? On the one hand, good governance can build sustainable mechanisms. OTOH, bad governance is a risk, so you want an open Internet.

Q: A decrease in activity among younger folk? Because they were so heavily involved initially?
John: They’re going to social networking sites instead of maintaining their own sites. But UGC is still an important activity to them.

Q: The changing behaviors as people age and how that will effect UGC?
John: Impossible to answer because we don’t know how the tech will change.


Mainak Mazumdar of The Nieslen Company begins by looking at blogging topics. It’s quite diverse he says. Next: size. Wikipedia has many more topics than Britannica. Also, social networking is very big: Member communities are #4 on most visited lists, after search, portals, and software manufacturers. #5 is email. Social media is big everywhere. (Biggest: 80% of Brazil. 67% in US.) The US is showing comparatively slower growth in “active reach of member communities.” Time spent in CGM has been increasing. So is the time spent on social networking. 35-49 years are the fastest growing audience for social networking sites. Teen consumption of SNS is going down, because they’re going more and more mobile. Mobile will be huge. TV will be big. People are watching more TV. Big media companies are doing well. “Becoming a mother is a dramatic inflectin point and drives women to the Web in search of advice and a desire to connect with others in her shoes” (from the slide).

Is the Net a game-changer for research companies? He compares it to scanner data in the 90s and online surveys in 1990s. In 2000s, perhaps [perhaps??] social networking will once again change the game. Reasons to think the Net is a game-changer overall [i.e., exceptionalism] : Pervasive, sticky, generational.

Q: Is TV watching growing on all screens or just on the living room screen?
Mainak: Time spent watching TV content on a TV.

Q: Maybe SNS have surpassed email because email was used to listserves to serve the social function.
Mainak: We’re talking about how long you spend in Outlook + Web mail. We install monitors that report on how long you spend in each application.

Russ Neuman: Be careful of projecting out from the current tech. It can be disrupted easily.

Q: Older people are entering SNSs. I call them “parents.” To what extent will that change what started out as a youth movement? Is the move to mobile a move out of the SNS as they become mom and dad’s spots? [Oprah is on twitter.]
A: Yes. Some younger teens are going straight to mobile and circumventing the Internet.


Eszter Hargittai talks about the role of skill in Internet use. Yes, young people use digital media and spend a lot of time online, but it’s true that they engage in lots of online activities or that they’re particularly savvy about the Net and Web tools. So, the idea of “digital natives” is often misguided.

She’s particularly interested in the skills people have and need. Her methodology: Paper and pencil surveys to avoid biasing towards those comfortable with using Web tools. 1,060 first year students at U of Illinois. Most of the data comes from 2007, although she has some pre-pub data from 2009. The question is: What explains variation in skill? Gender, education and income predict skill. “The Web offers lots of opportunities but those who can take advantage of them are those who are already privileged.”

This has an effect on how we intervene to equalize matters. You can’t change socio-economic status. And it turns out that motivation doesn’t seem to make much of an effect. You can only be motivated to do something that you already know is a possibility. She shows new data, not ready for blogging, that show that very small percentages of users have actually created content, voted on reviews, edited Wikipedia pages, etc. The number of teenagers who have heard of Twitter is quite low. [Sorry for the lack of numbers. I'm not sure I'm supposed to be reporting even these trends.]

Mainstream media remain strong. Eszter points to the media story about Facebook users having lower grades. Eszter looked at the study and finds it to be of poor quality. Yet it got huge mainstream play. Eszter tweeted about it. She blogged about it. The tweet led to a co-authored paper. Even so, the mainstream probably won’t care, and most of the tweets are still simply retweeting the bad data. The Net is a huge opportunity, but it’s not evenly distributed.

Q: A study found that people online are lonely. It was picked up by the media. The researcher revised to say that it’s the other way around. It wasn’t picked up. The media pick up on the dystopic.

Q: Your data reflects my experience with my students. They don’t blog, they don’t tweet. There’s a class component to this.
Eszter: We measure socio-economic status. Why does it correlate? We’re exploring this. We now ask about parental support of technology use, rules at home about tech use, etc. So far we’re finding (tentatively!) that lower-educated parents tend to have more rules for their kids.

Q: What happens when there’s universal wireline connection?
Eszter: As the tech changes, the skill sets change. The privileged stay ahead, according to my 8 years of studies.

Q: What skills should we be teaching?
A: Complicated. Crucial issue: The evaluation of the credibility of sources. There’s an extreme amount of trust in search engines. That’s one place we need to do more work. And librarians are highly relevant here.

Q: How do people use the Net to learn informally, e.g., WebMD?
Eszter: There are lots of ways and types to do this. But, first you need to know what’s on the Web. You need good search skills, good credibility-evaluation skills.



Cliff Lampe talks about how Mich State U students use Facebook. He presents a study just completed yesterday, so the data isn’t yet perfect. 97% of his sample are FB users (although Cliff expresses some discomfort with this number). Mean average of 441 friends; median = 381. Ninety percent of these they consider to be “actual” friends. 73% only accept friend requests from people they know in real life. Most spend just a little time (under 30mins) at FB per day. About half lets their friends (but not everyone in their network) to see everything in their profile. Almost everyone puts a photo of themselves up. Vast majority have a photo album. About a third think their parents are looking at their page. Overall they think they’re posting for their college and high school friends.

He talks about Everything2.com, a user-generated encyclopedia/compendium that is 11 years old. Why have people exited? Research shows they left because other sites came along that do the same thing better. Also, changes in life circumstances. Also, conflict with administration of the site. There’s a corporitization of some of the UGC sites. He also has looked into why new users don’t stick: They don’t glom onto the norms of the site.

Q: Are reasons for exiting a negative network effect? More than 150 and the network deteriorates?
Cliff: We see that in Usenet. But not so much at Facebook where you’re just dealing with your friends.

Q: Any sites that have tried to drive away new users?
Cliff: Metafilter has a bit of that. Slashdot has a “earn your bullshit” tagline.

Q: Are your students alone or with others when they are online? Are they aware of the technology?
Cliff: The rise of the netbook has had an effect. Most of my students experience social media as a group activity. But a lot of them are not that savvy. They generally don’t know how Wikipedia operates. [Tags: ]

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[ugc3] The Evolution of UGC

Dan Hunter of NY Law School begins with an informal talk called “UGC: From Threat He disagrees with Eli Noam that the end game will be commercialization. [Ah, the exceptionalist battle is joined!] He thinks about UGC as amateur media, focusing on the motivation of the users. His question: Is there a role for commercial providers, outside of providing the infrastructure? The content will increasingly be provided by people whose motivations are non-commercial. (He shows Wolf Loves Pork at YouTube.com. Very cool.)

It’s important to not think this is about traditional media forms, he says. It includes virtual worlds, collaborative games. People are living out their lives in these environments. UGC is not something separate from our lives. It is our environment.

Amateur work is crowding out the commercial, he says. E.g., YouTube, music, user reviews at Amazon etc. Most of the money is in the infrastructure, not the content: Blizzard providing World of Warcraft, Google, etc.

Q: Google lost $500M this year on YouTube.
Dan: If you’re suggesting there’s no money in infrastructure…We can’t yet know if that’s a blip, a market indicator, etc.

Q: Two examples that support your case: 1. Orpheus Orchestra has no conductor. 2. YouTube orchestra is collaborative.
Dan: Sites like Wikipedia can be quite bureaucratic. There’s a range of examples, some totally spontaneous.

Q: Wolf Eats Pig actually ends the other way around, which is a bad moral and is very worrisome for Japanese society.


Next, David Card of Forrester Research presents research. [I'm not going to try to capture the numbers.]

Social networking is becoming ubiquitous, but the “creative stuff” is still a minority behavior and is not growing at the same pace as social networking, watching videos, or writing reviews. Budgets for social marketing are still pretty low because the value of it is unproven. [His data actually show that few people can prove profitability from social marketing but a majority think it is valuable]

Social network business models: It will be like air (cf. Charline Li). Or it’s a walled garden. Or it’s a media model. The portal model faces threates from Google and social networking sites. AT SNS’s people view photos and videos, keep up with friends, etc. They’re not consuming much professional content there. Marketers should “tap entertainment media, then build out social marketing promise.” Facebook’s “Beacon” idea was powerful but ineptly handled. [Beacon: When buy something, it asks if you want to share that news with your FB friends.] Money is more likely to come from the audience than from authors; the real social marketing potential is untapped.

Q: Opportunity: Harvesting social networking data for customer relationship management. [Doc Searls: This one's for you! :)]
David: Lots of people do this. P&G. Fox. They bring in the audience to get feedback. “If you get them into real product development, that’s a nirvana.” Although you have to be careful that you’re not handing design to a niche market of your most enthusiastic customers.
Q: Keeping track of the metadata about the types of info makes this huge market of info usable.
David: Do you mean Amazon ought to make its customer available to others?
Q: No.

Q: The virtual is piercing the physical, ending up in offline retail.
A: Interesting.

Q: What guidance for employees active in these spaces, so they feel free to express their ideas but also potentially censorship?
David: Forrester analysts have personal blogs as well as company blogs. Neither are reviewed. We have policies that say you should think about what you’re saying. But if it’s too heavy handed so that employees look like shills, they won’t get a very big audience. You have to play by the rules of the medium — uncensored, rapid response (e.g., WholeFoods responds instantly, even if it’s an intern in a closet sometwhere) — authenticity, etc. It’s a delicate line.


Robert Cohen talks about business adoption of virtual worlds. He points to the broad use of interactive sites by children 7-12, suggesting that we’re seeing a deep change. There are over 100M subscribers to the Barbi site and 100s of millions of Habbo users. This may portend a generational change.

He points to three waves: Content-centric, Surface [he's using a Microsoft chart], and immersive. He’s interviewed 50 vendors about how virtual worlds will be used. It has the potential to affect the way business operates (he says). First, it enhances training and teamwork. Then, more interactive corporations. Over the next tend years we’ll see collaborative corporations (among suppliers and product developers) and “modern guild system firms” (“highly technologically competent firms that come together to collaborate on projects”). He points to oil companies using virtual worlds to model environments for training, exploration.

Q: The press is reporting that SecondLife has stumbled in growth and development. And how can we get from Barbi style product focus to a platform approach?
Bob: There’s controversy about this. BTW, Mitch Kapor is working on putting your photo on your avatar and making the movement more realistic. SecondLife also has bought a company that does business operations. But IBM has shown a way to connect virtual worlds through a firewall. But SecondLife is trying. There’s a lot going on i n Europe.

[Posting without rereading so I can go to the break. Sorry.] [Tags: ]

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April 4, 2009

Obama Obama’s exceptionalism

James Fallows has an insightful analysis of a seemingly simple answer Obama gave to a question about American exceptionalism. And in it, you can see the workings of Fallows’ writerly mind.

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