Joho the Blog » social media

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 16, 2013

[berkman] Zeynep Tufecki on the boom-and-bust cycle of social-media-fueled protests (with live reporting)

Zeynep Tufecki [twitter:zeynep] is giving a Berkman Tuesday Lunch talk titled “Gezi Park Protests & the Boom-Bust Cycle of Social Media Fueled Protest.” She says that surveillance and social media + protest are two of her topics, so swhen protests broke out in her home country of Turkey, she felt she really had to study it. She is today presenting issues she is still working through.

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.

She says that on the positive side of the role of social media on politics, we see lower coordination costs, the ability to shape the narrative, and an ability to overcome internal prejudice. On the negative: slacktivism, surveilliance, and propaganda. For her the lower costs cause the boom-bust cycle in social media-fueled activism. There are many questions she says, including why most of these social-media fueled protests fizzle out.

People usually argue about the wrong questions, Zeynep says. Instead, she suggests that we stop looking so much at the outputs of social media-fueled protests and instead at their capacity-building. Also, stop using offline or online as the important differentiation, and instead look at them in terms of what they signal.

She gives some background on Gezi, Turkey. The media focused on Taksim Square in Istanbul, but the action was actually in Gezi park. Prime Minister Erdogan wanted to turn the park into a developed area with housing, a shopping mall, and an old Ottoman barracks. This was an unpopular plan, and was taken as a symbol for wider discontent. Neighborhood people held a small protest. Maybe 30 people. But it was met with overwhelming force, which raised fear of the gov’t become authoritarian. People took to the streets. Turkish media are owned by large corporate conglomerates in cahoots with the gov’t. CNN locally was running shows about penguins, while CNN International was covering the protests. “So people got upset and took to Twitter and to the streets” (including an image of penguins in gas masks).


via Turkish Press Review Blog

After multiday clashes in the area, “coordinated and spread almost solely on social media,” Gezi Park was Occupied. (Zeynep stresses that Turkey, unlike, other countries nearby, has a popularly-elected gov’t.) Zeynep joined in, packing an audio recorder, a bike helmet, and a tear gas mask. And sun protector lotion because statistically, she says, she felt most threatened by the Sun.

A single party had been in power in Turkey for 11 years. The country was polarized, but with an ineffective opposition. There are barriers to creating new parties (you have to get 10% to get any seats), which means the country is locked into an ineffective opposition.

At first the occupation was like a fair: clean, kitchens that were feeding 10K people, and like a carnival in the evenings because of the visitors. Occasionally, you’d get tear gassed. “Woodstock meets the Paris Commune.” She shows a picture of a Sufi whirler wearing a gas mask. People were finding politics.

There was “one no, many yes-es,” [an anti-globalization meme] which Zeynep argues is an Internet phenomenon. Turks who normally would never talk with one another found each other in the park.

There’s the free-rider question. Even if the protest itself were a festival, the costs would be real: Five people died, thousands were injured by tear gas cannisters which can be lethal.

The protestors’ main grievances were: growing authoritarianism, media censoprship, and police brutality. (Source: Zeynep formally interviewed 130 people.)

The Net’s role was to break the censorship, create a new narrative, and to coordinate. She looks at each of these:

The media censorship was incredible. CNN Turkey showed a soccer match as protestors were being chased down the city’s main street. Protestors used Twitter in part because there were too many family members on Facebook. “Ironically, Twitter became more essential because it was more public.” Twitter’s blue bird became the symbol of freedom, in part because people trusted Twitter not to turn over names. Also: lots of penguins.

Real-time coordination: Overall, the Net worked. People coordinated in real time via Twitter. Local businesses turned on open Wifi. People would text to others who then tweeted.

People learned new literacies, especially who to trust. One Twitter stream only tweeted citizen journalism if it came with a photo, to increase credibility.

Counter narrative: Very youth and humor oriented. People came because it was a great place to be, even with the tear gassings. People felt fairly confident that they wouldn’t get shot at, similar to Western Europe or the US.

Leadership: There were 130 organizations, but no central leadership. Much of it was ad hoc, which worked because of social media.

After a few weeks, the protest was brutally dispersed, and then it moved to local parks and neighborhoods. When it broke up, the govt mostly decided to treat the protestors the way GW Bush treated the anti-Iraq War protests: not as a threat, but more like merely a focus group.

Capacity building: Look at capacity, not outcomes. E.g., look at literacy, not GDP (Amatyra Sen). Internet’s capacity-building renders other forms of capacity-building less useful.

The online and offline are one ecology. (She’s looking here at post-citizen protests, i.e., protests were the participants are already recognized as citizens).

The Net lowers the barriers for the resources necessary for protest. No one planned the Gezi protests. They just arose.

So what do protest do? They grab attention, promote social interaction, reveal info, and signal capacity. Her thesis: Internet protests don’t signal the same way as pre-Internet. The Net gains attention without media mediating. Media dependency brings distortion, censorship, and counter propaganda — but also dominance, focus, and singular narrative. Media attention pre-Net often signaled elite dissent. With the Net, movements can get attention on their own terms, but can’t get a singular or dominant narrative. “Since there is no single elite voice, there is no reliable way to signal elite dissent.” Now you can’t get away from polarized narratives.

For social interaction capacity, it’s a big win for the movements. It’s much easier to find people like you on the Net. “The Internet is a homophily machine.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t work just for the movements you like. e.g., the anti-vaccine movement. It’s a win for social movements, but there will be many more movements.

Info revelation. Pluralistic ignorance = you think you’re the only one who is thinking something. The Net gets us past that, e.g., Facebook pages. But, then there are bandwagon/cascade effects.

Signaling: Protests as “stotting.” (“Stotting” = animals jumping up in the bush.) One explanation: it signals how strong you are and thus how fast you can run. Before the Net, because there wasn’t an easy way to organize, if you got a million people to DC, you’re signaling that you have an infrastructural capacity far beyond those million. Now, getting lots of people in the street doesn’t signal the threats that modern govts care about. Even when there are costs, those costs don’t signal the capacity to hurt the govt in ways the govt cares about. So, slacktivism is a bad argument; it’s not the cost of typing that’s being signalled.

Network internalities for social media-fueled protests are weaker. The Left doesn’t celebrate building network internalities because the Left sidesteps important tensions (leadership, representation, delegation). “Side stepping those tensions means that after the street protests, things are more unclear for the Left.” The Left is unable to negotiate, which is why so many movements are stuck at no. The Net allows them to sidestep developing ways to negotiate, etc. The Right, on the other hand (e;g., Tea Party) is comfortable challenging primaries.

To sum up: Look at the building of capacities, not how many people show up. This explains why there’s a repeated cycle where the protests are unable to engage in effective negotiation, representation, pressure, and delegation.

Q&A

Q: What other than Twitter is being used?

A: In Gezi, people knew how to post to Twitter by texting. And Twitter gained the users’ trust. Facebook was important for longer conversations. People collected photos on Tumblr. A lot of blogging, etc. But Twitter was how protesters talked with one another. Turkey isn’t a client state and didn’t need to appeal to America. And hashtags were dropped, so analytics miss just how big it was.

Q: [me] Is the Left stuck forever not being able to get past protests to actual change?

A: In Google Egypt Wael Ghonim was identified as a leader, and he was picked up for questioning. But he couldn’t have coerced a change even if he’d wanted to. I’m not saying this is great. At Gezi, the govt said “Let’s negotiate.” But who do you send? They sent people from the traditional NGOs, but they had no representational capacity. They listend to the Prime Minister. But they weren’t empowered to negotiate. The govt was genuinely frustrated that they couldn’t find a negotiating partner. So after the negotiations, there were some demands, they came back to the park. It’s 3 or 4am. They’re trying to explain what happened. People were confused. There was no way to deal with it. The next day, the protestors formed little forums, but how do you decide which to listen to? Some people were ready to accept it an go. People wanted consensus. But consensus has meant “a lot of social pressure.” That doesn’t work in the modern city. So where do we go with this? It can’t just be technology. There has to be a recognition among Left movements that if you can’t ever delegate or negotiate, then you’re stuck at No. The Right isn’t like this. The Right is using social media to make really significant strides. They’ve blocked the President’s agenda. They’re getting elected in Europe. They Left is unable to get together enough to address the 30-40% unemplyment in Spain. The big visible protests are Left wing. The big visible gains are Right wing.

Q: You said there were about 150 social groups involved in the movement. What was the relation between how they organize this protest and …?

The 150 groups didn’t represent the people on the ground. The groups formed the leadership because they were there, but people on the ground didn’t think of themselves as being there as members of those groups. The traditional NGOs had no capacity to lead, and didn’t understand that.

Q: I was a protestor in Ankara. I was tear gassed three times. Tastes good. How can we orient this approach to be an alternative to the traditional opposition structure? The classic opposition parties in Turkey do not represent the young people, the democratic-based people.

A: We have a huge crisis in opposition representation. The classic opposition parties do not represent the young generation. The young are big on pluralism, for example. There’s no party that represents the live-and-let-live ethic among the protestors. E.g., the young have no polarization around the head scarf issue: “They should if they want to, and not if they don’t want to.” That’s not represented in Parliament. The electoral system blocks the formation of new parties because of the 10% barrier. But, also, the young have a cultural allergy to representation because in traditional politics they see corruption, not representation.

Q: But there’s a trend in the Turkish community to do something. We have to find an alternative.

A: What motivates the existing govt is people losing office.

Q: How many companies offer Internet facilities in Turkey?

A: The backbone goes through one and then it’s sold to companies that can sell access. Great for surveillance. But it’s not the same concern as elsewhere, which is why people felt safe tweeting. Turkey is probably more wired than the US, which isn’t saying so much. Smartphones are necessary just to coordinate meeting up. Much lateness.

Q: In India, we have two successful models. The protests against the rape case were done through FB. An anti-corruption movement was able to organize millions of people throughout the country. But how do you coalesce these energies, give it a shape? But a word of caution: Panic about people from the northeast of India spread throughout the country thanks to social media, leading to killings.

The biggest case of non-state terrorism happened in Pakistan because of a video. Is the Internet good or bad? Yes.

Q: Is protest never effective?

A: Numbers still matter. But it depends on what it’s signaling, which also depends on context. If it signals than we’re here and we’re going to challenge you in your weak point, then yes…

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April 20, 2013

Subverting ads

I’m a sucker for ads that comment on the dishonesty of ads. For example, I laughed at this one from Newcastle Brown Ale:

I also really liked this one as well:

I do have a duck-rabbit disagreement with Piper Hoffman’s reading of it at BlogHer. I took the ad as a direct comment on the sexism of beer ads: if you’re not an attractive woman, beer companies won’t include you. But Piper raises an interesting point. [SPOILER ALERT] She’s right that if the pronoun had been “she,” the point would have been less ambiguous. But it also would have been a bit crueler, since the ad would have had Newcastle calling their brewmistress unattractive, and it also could have been taken as Newcastle agreeing that only attractive women should ever be shown on in an ad.

While I enjoy a meta-ad like this (at least as I take it), I also feel a bit meta-fooled: What does that have to do with whether their beer is any good? I’m not looking to be friends with a beer.

I get more enjoyment from viewers subverting ads. For example, I saw an ad for KFC about some new boneless chicken product.

I wasn’t paying attention, in part because it was a commercial, and in part because I haven’t eaten anything from KFC since I became a vegetarian 1979 but I have not forgotten the sensation of eating chicken that’s been so close to liquefied that it’s held together only by a layer of deep-fried cholesterol. But I saw the hashtag #iAteTheBones and checked it out on Twitter.

Bunches of the tweets praise the commercial as amusing. (It was directed by David O.Russell, who also directed the Oscar-winning Silver Linings Playbook.) But prominent in the list is this:

Well, not as far as I can tell. But the tweet made me look.

And a heavily-favorited tweet is quite savage:

Someone in the KFC Marketing Department has already written an email to senior management explaining why this is a good thing for KFC. But, um, it’s not.

Neither is this:

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April 2, 2013

[berkman] Anil Dash on “The Web We Lost”

Anil Dash is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk, titled “The Web We Lost.” He begins by pointing out that the title of his talk implies a commonality that at least once was.

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.

[Light editing on April 3 2013.]

Anil puts up an icon that is a symbol of privately-owned public spaces in New York City. Businesses create these spaces in order to be allowed to build buildings taller than the zoning requirements allow. These are sorta kinda like parks but are not. E.g., Occupy isn’t in Zuccotti Park any more because the space is a privately-own public space, not a park. “We need to understand the distinction” between the spaces we think are public and the ones that are privately owned.

We find out about these when we transgress rules. We expect to be able to transgress in public spaces, but in these privately-owned spaces we cannot. E.g., Improv Everywhere needs to operate anonymously to perform in these spaces. Anil asks us to imagine “a secretive, private ivy league club.” He is the son of immigrants and didn’t go to college. “A space even as welcoming as this one [Harvard Berkman] can seem intimidating.” E.g., Facebook was built as a private club. It welcomes everyone now, but it still doesn’t feel like it’s ours. It’s very hard for a business to get much past its origins.

One result of online privately-owned public spaces is “the wholesale destruction of your wedding photos.” When people lose them in a fire, they are distraught because those photos cannot be replaced. Yet everyday we hear about a startup that “succeeds” by selling out, and then destroying the content that they’d gathered. We’ve all gotten the emails that say: “Good news! 1. We’re getting rich. 2. You’re not. 3. We’re deleting your wedding photos.” They can do this because of the terms of service that none of us read but that give them carte blanche. We tend to look at this as simply the cost of doing business with the site.

But don’t see it that way, Anil urges. “This is actually a battle” against the values of the early Web. In the mid to late 1990s, the social Web arose. There was a time when it was meaningful thing to say that you’re a blogger. It was distinctive. Now being introduced as a blogger “is a little bit like being introduced as an emailer.” “No one’s a Facebooker.” The idea that there was a culture with shared values has been dismantled.

He challenges himself to substantiate this:

“We have a lot of software that forbids journalism.” He refers to the IoS [iphone operating system] Terms of Service for app developers that includes text that says, literally: “If you want to criticize a religion, write a book.” You can distribute that book through the Apple bookstore, but Apple doesn’t want you writing apps that criticize religion. Apple enforces an anti-journalism rule, banning an app that shows where drone strikes have been.

Less visibly, the laws is being bent “to make our controlling our data illegal.” All the social networks operate as common carriers — neutral substrates — except when it comes to monetizing. The boundaries are unclear: I can sing “Happy Birthday” to a child at home, and I can do it over FaceTime, but I can’t put it up at YouTube [because of copyright]. It’s very open-ended and difficult to figure. “Now we have the industry that creates the social network implicitly interested in getting involved in how IP laws evolve.” When the Google home page encourages visitors to call their senators against SOPA/PIPA, we have what those of us against Citizens United oppose: we’re asking a big company to encourage people to act politically in a particular way. At the same time, we’re letting these companies capture our words and works and put them under IP law.

A decade ago, metadata was all the rage among the geeks. You could tag, geo-tag, or machine-tag Flickr photos. Flickr is from the old community. That’s why you can still do Creative Commons searches at Flickr. But you can’t on Instagram. They don’t care about metadata. From an end-user point of view, RSS is out of favor. The new companies are not investing in creating metadata to make their work discoverable and shareable.

At the old Suck.com, hovering on a link would reveal a punchline. Now, with the introduction of Adlinks and AdSense, Google transformed links from the informative and aesthetic, to an economic tool for search engine optimization (SEO). Within less than 6 months, linkspam was spawned. Today Facebook’s EdgeRank is based on the idea that “Likes” are an expression of your intent, which determines how FB charges for ads. We’ll see like-spammers and all the rest we saw with links. “These gestural things that were editorial or indicators of intent get corrupted right away.” There are still little islands, but for the most part these gestures that used to be about me telling you that I like your work are becoming economic actions.

Anil says that a while ago when people clicked on a link from Facebook to his blog, FB popped up a warning notice saying that it might be dangerous to go there. “The assumption is that my site is less trustworthy than theirs. Let’s say that’s true. Let’s say I’m trying to steal all your privacy and they’re not.” [audience laughs] He has FB comments on his site. To get this FB has to validate your page. “I explicitly opted in to the Facebook ecology” in part to prove he’s a moderate and in part as a convenience to his readers. At the same time, FB was letting the Washington Post and The Guardian publish within the FB walls, and FB never gave that warning when you clicked on their links. A friend at FB told Anil that the popup was a bug, which might be. But that means “in the best case, we’re stuck fixing their bugs on our budgets.” (The worst case is that FB is trying to shunt traffic away from other sites.)

And this is true for all things that compete with the Web. The ideas locked into apps won’t survive the company’s acquisition, but this is true when we change devices as well. “Content tied to devices dies when those devices become obsolete.” We have “given up on standard formats.” “Those of us who cared about this stuff…have lost,” overall. Very few apps support standard formats, with jpg and html as exceptions. Likes and follows, etc., all use undocumented proprietary formats. The most dramatic shift: we’ve lost the expectation that they would be interoperable. The Web was built out of interoperability. “This went away with almost no public discourse about the implications of it.”

The most important implication of all this comes when thinking about the Web as a public space. When the President goes on FB, we think about it as a public space, but it’s not, and dissent and transgression are not permitted. “Terms of Service and IP trump the Constitution.” E.g., every single message you put on FB during the election FB could have transformed into its opposite, and FB would be within its ToS rights. After Hurricane Sandy, public relief officials were broadcasting messages only through FB. “You had to be locked into FB to see where public relief was happening. A striking change.”

What’s most at risk are the words of everyday people. “It’s never the Pharaoh’s words that are lost to history.” Very few people opt out of FB. Anil is still on FB because he doesn’t want to lose contact with his in-laws. [See Dan Gillmor's talk last week.) Without these privately-owned public spaces, Anil wouldn't have been invited to Harvard; it's how he made his name.

"The main reason this shift happened in the social web is the arrogance of the people who cared about the social web in the early days...We did sincerely care about enabling all these positive things. But the way we went about it was so arrogant that Mark Zuckerberg's vision seemed more appealing, which is appalling." An Ivy League kid's software designed for a privileged, exclusive elite turned out to be more appealing than what folks like Anil were building. "If we had been listening more, and a little more open in self-criticism, it would have been very valuable."

There was a lot of triumphalism after PIPA/SOPA went down, but it took a huge amount of hyperbole: "Hollywood wants to destroy the First Amendment, etc." It worked once but it doesn't scale. The willingness to pat ourselves on our back uncritically led us to vilify people who support creative industries. That comes from the arrogance that they're dinosaurs, etc. People should see us being publicly critical of ourselves. For something to seem less inclusive than FB or Apple — incredibly arrogant, non-egalitarian cultures — that's something we should look at very self-critically.

Some of us want to say "But it's only some of the Web." We built the Web for pages, but increasingly we're moving from pages to streams (most recently-updated on top, generally), on our phones but also on bigger screens. Sites that were pages have become streams. E.g., YouTube and Yahoo. These streams feel like apps, not pages. Our arrogance keeps us thinking that the Web is still about pages. Nope. The percentage of time we spend online looking at streams is rapidly increasing. It is already dominant. This is important because these streams are controlled access. The host controls how we experience the content. "This is part of how they're controlling the conversation." No Open Web advocate has created a stream that's anywhere near as popular as the sites we're going to. The geeks tend to fight the last battle. "Let's make an open source version of the current thing." Instead, geeks need to think about creating a new kind of stream. People never switch to more open apps. (Anil says Firefox was an exception.)

So, what do we do? Social technologies follow patterns. It's cyclical. (E.g., "mainframes being rebranded as The Cloud.") Google is doing just about everything Microsoft was doing in the late 1990s. We should expect a reaction against their overreach. With Microsoft, "policy really worked." The Consent Decree made IE an afterthought for developers. Public policy can be an important of this change. "There's no question" that policy over social software is coming.

Also, some "apps want to do the right thing." Anil's ThinkUp demonstrates this. We need to be making apps that people actually want, not ones that are just open. "Are you being more attentive to what users want than Mark Zuckerberg is?" We need to shepherd and coach the apps that want to do the right thing. We count on 23 yr olds to do this, but they were in 5th grade when the environment was open. It's very hard to learn the history of the personal software industry and how it impacted culture. "What happened in the desktop office suite wars ?" [Ah, memories!] We should be learning from such things.

And we can learn things from our own data. “It’s much easier for me to check my heart-rate than how often I’m reading Twitter.”

Fortunately, there are still institutions that care about a healthy Web. At one point there was a conflict between federal law and Terms of Service: the White House was archiving coments on its FB wall, whereas FB said you couldn’t archive for more than 24 hrs.

We should remember that ToS isn’t law. Geeks will hack software but treat ToS as sacred. Our culture is negatively impacted by ToS and we should reclaim our agency over them. “We should think about how to organize action around specific clauses in ToS.” In fact, “people have already chosen a path of civil disobedience.” E.g., search YouTube for “no infringement intended.” “It’s like poetry.” They’re saying “I’m not trying to step on your toes, but the world needs to see this.” “I’m so inspired by this.” If millions of teenagers assembled to engage in civil disobedience, we’d be amazed. They do on line. They feel they need to transgress because of a creative urge, or because it’s speech with a friend not an act of publishing. “That’s the opportunity. That’s the exciting part. People are doing this every single day.

[I couldn't capture the excellent Q&A because I was running the microphone around.]

 


The video of the talk will be posted here.

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February 4, 2013

[2b2k] Are all good conversations echo chambers?

Bora Zivkovic, the blog editor at Scientific American, has a great post about bad comment threads. This is a topic that has come up every day this week, which may just be a coincidence, or perhaps is a sign that the Zeitgeist is recognizing that when it talks to itself, it sounds like an idiot.

Bora cites a not-yet-published paper that presents evidence that a nasty, polarized comment thread can cause readers who arrive with no opinion about the paper’s topic to come to highly polarized opinions about it. This is in line with off-line research Cass Sunstein cites that suggests echo chambers increase polarization, except this new research indicates that it increases polarization even on first acquaintance. (Bora considers the echo chamber idea to be busted, citing a prior post that is closely aligned with the sort of arguments I’ve been making, although I am more worried about the effects of homophily — our tendency to hang out with people who agree with us — than he is.)

Much of Bora’s post is a thoughtful yet strongly voiced argument that it is the responsibility of the blog owner to facilitate good discussions by moderating comments. He writes:

So, if I write about a wonderful dinner I had last night, and somewhere in there mention that one of the ingredients was a GMO product, but hey, it was tasty, then a comment blasting GMOs is trolling.

Really? Then why did Bora go out of his way to mention that it was a GMO product? He seems to me to be trolling for a response. Now, I think Bora just picked a bad example in this case, but it does show that the concept of “off-topic” contains a boatload of norms and assumptions. And Bora should be fine with this, since his piece begins by encouraging bloggers to claim their conversation space as their own, rather than treating it as a public space governed by the First Amendment. It’s up to the blogger to do what’s necessary to enable the type of conversations that the blogger wants. All of which I agree with.

Nevertheless, Bora’s particular concept of being on-topic highlights a perpetual problem of conversation and knowledge. He makes a very strong case — nicely argued — for why he nukes climate-change denials from his comment thread. Read his post, but the boiled down version is: (a) These comments are without worth because they do not cite real evidence and most of them are astroturf anyway. (b) They create a polarized environment that has the bad effect of raising unjustified doubts in the minds of readers of the post (as per the research he mentions at the beginning of his post). (c) They prevent conversation from advancing thought because they stall the conversation at first principles. Sounds right to me. And I agree with his subsequent denial of the echo chamber effect as well:

The commenting threads are not a place to showcase the whole spectrum of opinions, no matter how outrageous some of them are, but to educate your readers, and to, in turn, get educated by your readers who always know something you don’t.

But this is why the echo chamber idea is so slippery. Conversation consists of the iteration of small differences upon a vast ground of agreement. A discussion of a scientific topic among readers of Scientific American has value insofar as they can assume that, say, evolution is an established theory, that assertions need to be backed by facts of a certain evidentiary sort (e.g., “God told me” doesn’t count), that some assertions are outside of the scope of discussion (“Evolution is good/evil”), etc. These are criteria of a successful conversation, but they are also the marks of an echo chamber. The good Scientific American conversation that Bora curates looks like an echo chamber to the climate change deniers and the creationists. If one looks only at the structure of the conversation, disregarding all the content and norms, the two conversations are indistinguishable.

But now I have to be really clear about what I’m not saying. I am not saying that there’s no difference between creationists and evolutionary biologists, or that they are equally true. I am not saying that both conversations follow the same rules of evidence. I am certainly not saying that their rules of evidence are equally likely to lead to scientific truths. I am not even saying that Bora needs to throw open the doors of his comments. I’m saying something much more modest than that: To each side, the other’s conversation looks like a bunch of people who are reinforcing one another in their wrong beliefs by repeating those beliefs as if they were obviously right. Even the conversation I deeply believe is furthering our understanding — the evolutionary biologists, if you haven’t guessed where I stand on this issue — has the structure of an echo chamber.

This seems to me to have two implications.

First, it should keep us alert to the issue that Bora’s post tries to resolve. He encourages us to exclude views challenging settled science because including ignorant trolls leads casual visitors to think that the issues discussed are still in play. But climate change denial and creationist sites also want to promote good conversations (by their lights), and thus Bora is apparently recommending that those sites also should exclude those who are challenging the settled beliefs that form the enabling ground of conversation — even though in this case it would mean removing comments from all those science-y folks who keep “trolling” them. It seems to me that this leads to a polarized culture in which the echo chamber problem gets worse. Now, I continue to believe that Bora is basically right in his recommendation. I just am not as happy about it as he seems to be. Perhaps Bora is in practice agreeing with Too Big to Know’s recommendation that we recognize that knowledge is fragmented and is not going to bring us all together.

Second, the fact that we cannot structurally distinguish a good conversation from a bad echo chamber I think indicates that we don’t have a good theory of conversation. The echo chamber fear grows in the space that a theory of conversation should inhabit.

I don’t have a theory of conversation in my hip pocket to give you. But I presume that such a theory would include the notion, evident in Bora’s post, that conversations have aims, and that when a conversation is open to the entire world (a radically new phenomenon…thank you WWW!) those aims should be explicitly stated. Likewise for the norms of the conversation. I’m also pretty sure that conversations are never only about they say they’re about because they are always embedded in complex social environments. And because conversations iterate on differences on a vast ground of similarity, conversations rarely are about changing people’s minds about those grounds. Also, I personally would be suspicious of any theory of conversation that began by viewing conversations as composed fundamentally of messages that are encoded by the sender and decoded by the recipient; that is, I’m not at all convinced that we can get a theory of conversation out of an information-based theory of communication.

But I dunno. I’m confused by this entire topic. Nothing that a good conversation wouldn’t cure.

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January 17, 2013

Clay Shirky: Why do comments suck?

At SCS13, Clay Shirky says that “Why do comments suck so bad?” is one of the questions that is perpetually asked in public discussions. So, what’s the answer?

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.

Clay points to YouTube as the “basement” of conversation, even in comments on innocuous videos, but there are sites discussing contentious issues that are quite civil and useful. And Google owns YouTube, and they have lots of money and an Internet sensibility, but still YouTube comments suck.

Explanation #1: The world is filled with trolls. But in fact, some sites with good commenting sections moderate comments, thinking about the commenters as a community, not as individuals asserting “First Amendment” rights.

Explanation #2: “Good. Big. Cheap. Pick two.” YouTube’s scale is “an attractive nuiscance.” If you have a publishing frame, then you want to let as many people in. If you have a community view, you are ok with limiting page views. E.g., Gawker uses an algorithm that features comments based on the richness of the thread. (The lower-ranked comments are still there.)

Explanation #3: “What do you want the users to do?” Publishing sites actually want people to forward the article to a million friends and then read another article. They often relegate the comments to the bottom of the page. E.g., the NYT says “Share your thoughts,” which is incredibly generic. No guidance is given. The result are responses that read like letters to the editor, without interaction or conversation. The NYT gives you actionable info for shows, but not for candidates: no links to their sites, no way to donate, etc. “The NYT is much better at helping consumers plug into markets than citizens to plug into politics.”

Explanation #4. “Institutions dodnot have the full range of either social technical solutions available to them culturally.” They can’t think of their commenters as a community instead of as a way of generating low-cost page views.

Q&A

Clay would like newspapers to have a dashboard of options they can use when constructing commenting sections, each customized to the article.

Q: [Anil Dash] Why ascribe this to ignorance instead of malice. Many of this institutions are served by making their readers look stupid.

Clay: That’s one of my a priori assumptions. I don’t think the individuals making choices are purposefully trying to keep the comments shallow and to prevent collective action. Rather, “letters to the editor” is a comfortable place for them.

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January 14, 2013

What gods and beasts have in common

“The man who is incapable of working in common, or who in his self-sufficiency has no need of others, is no part of the community, like a beast, or a god.”


Aristotle, Politics, Book One, Chapter 2, this quotation translated by Bernard Knox in Backing into the Future.

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October 4, 2012

Social media unite. Unwin Mitt.

The narrative was primed to develop, and so it did: Romney won the debate. The instant polls say so, and the mainstream media say so. And although I thought Obama did a far better job, I know that I’m biased that way. I’m willing to acknowledge: Romney won the debate last night.

But, although Romney won it last night, he lost it today, because now we know for sure how much he lied. We can reverse the narrative. We have an obligation to do so.

When cheaters are discovered after a game, they are stripped of their victory. That is what we of social media need to do. The mainstream media won’t because they claim they don’t proclaim winners, although that is exactly what they do.

It is up to us, the tweeters, the bloggers, the updaters of our status, the mailing listers, the tumblrs…all of us. We can turn the mainstream narrative around. That is what social media are for. We can tell the truth. We can speak honest memes to false narratives.

The truth is that Romney lost because he cheated. We together are the truth-checkers.

So here is the narrative we can make true: Romney won last night, but he lost today.

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May 25, 2012

[mesh] Michael O’Connor Clarke

Yesterday at the Mesh conference I caught the second half of Michael O’Connor Clarke‘s presentation, to a packed house, about how not to use social media for marketing. I’ve known Michael since the Cluetrain days, and it was great to warch him argue against viewing social media as a messaging vehicle.

Michael has long championed understanding the Net as, well, a conversation that needs to be respected. Keeping that conversation as open and vibrant as possible is more important than your business’s tawdry ambitions, he says. (I am not just paraphrasing here, but entirely putting words in his mouth.) If your business wants to engage with it — and not every business has to, he says — then it should be engaged with by actual people, with actual names, actual interests, and actual personalities. Completely transparently, of course.

Great teaching, great examples, plus Michael’s hilarious. [Michael on twitter]

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Marketing music: Amanda Palmer shows you how it’s done.

A few days ago I pointed to Elizabeth ‘s thread at Reddit where she engaged with the public in a way that everyone who manages customer support, PR, or marketing ought to learn from.

Today, Amanda Palmer posted about her current Kickstarter project, which has raised $855,000 with eight days yet to run. Her goal was $100,000…except in her post she responds with complete frankness (she’s AFP, after all) about what her real expectations were. The post is both an explanation and a demonstration of how musicians and theandir audiences can love and support each other.

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