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February 11, 2011

Freedom for Egypt: Some tweets, a thought about a future of journalism, and a question about networked leadership

This is such a miraculous day for our sisters and brothers in Egypt. As an American, a father, a Jew, and a fellow human being, I am overwhelmed with happiness for you and what you have so courageously accomplished.

A couple of tweets:

@MOHAMMEDFAS: words of joy will be everywhere only thoes who have oppressed this day will speachless!!

@peterglaser: Heute fängt das 21. Jahrhundert an – nicht am 11. September [The 21st century starts here, not on 9/11]

I learned a lot from Paul Amar’s article that tries to lay out Egypt’s power structure and political landscape. Of course, I cannot evaluate its accuracy. (I heard about it from a tweet by Matthew Stoller.

Andy Carvin [twitter:acarvin] is one of the faces of the future of journalism. He curated and retweeted thousands of tweets, a stream that gave better continuous coverage than was available on any of the broadcast channels. His retweeting of messages from the ground, from other Twitterers, from the mainstream media gave us a Channel of One. Andy’s stream was transparent — he was on the side of the protestors, duh (and, btw, CNN certainly gave up any pretense of objectivity on that score)— and imbued with his personality and his sense of humor.

Sure, Andy’s twitter stream was not a sufficient source of information, but what was? And sure, tweets are only 140 characters long, but they can include links to longer pieces.

Andy became a central part of the media ecology for many of us. While Andy is unique, the role he played is replicable. Smart media companies will be out looking for their own Andy Carvins. Even so, most will get it wrong, because they will assume that being inside a media company helps. I’m not sure that it does, although being paid by a media company certainly must.

(Some people (including me) have made donations to their local NPR stations to support Andy’s efforts. You can donate here. If you do, how about tweeting it with the hashtag #gave4andy so the the motive for your donation will be clear?)

(Later that day: Nieman Lab has an excellent post on the gave4Andy meme.)

A question: We’re going to be arguing forever about the role and importance of social media in the Egyptian revolution, but I want to ask a smaller question: Would the Egyptian Revolution been leaderless without the presence of social media?

I ask this as a genuine question. And I understand that I don’t know how leaderless it was.


February 1, 2011

What crowdsourcing looks like

Watch volunteers jump into and around the Google spreadsheet that’s coordinating the transcribing and translating of Egyptian voice-to-tweet msgs. Not exactly a Jerry Bruckheimer video, but the awesomeness of what we’re seeing crept up on me. (Check the link to the hi-rez version after you’ve read the TheNextWeb post; otherwise you can’t really see what’s going on.)


October 11, 2010

Why it’s good to be boring on the Web

Casually and randomly click your way through the Web, and it’s as if you were to knock on the doors of random people around the world and were to see a startling set of stupidities, insults, and depravities.

Of course, if you actually were to knock on random doors and get to listen in on what’s going on in living rooms and bedrooms, you probably would be depressed. It’s even worse online because extremism — and not just in politics — drives up traffic.

That’s one reason why, despite the “Who cares what you had for breakfast?” crowd, it’s important that we’ve been filling the new social spaces — blogs, social networking sites, Twitter, messaging in all forms, shared creativity in every format — with the everyday and quotidian. When we don’t have to attract others by behaving outlandishly, we behave in the boring ways that make life livable. In so doing, we make the Net a better reflection of who we are.

And since we are taking the Net as the image of who we are, and since who we think we are is broadly determinative of who we become, this matters.


October 2, 2010

Gladwell discovers it takes more than 140 characters to overturn a government

It seems to me that Malcolm Gladwell’s debunking of the claim that the Net will empower political revolutions is right about one big thing, but wrong about a whole lot more.

Because of Gladwell’s often-emulated twisty way into a topic, here is my take at an outline of of the article, so that we can see its argument better.

In 1960, four college students staged a sit-in in NC. Within a week, sit-ins had started to spread like “a fever.”

Gladwell now states the claim he is going debunk: “The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism.” He then points to world events that have been claimed to support that view.

But, (he continues) those events were not really brought about by social media. Why would we think they were? It’s not due just to over-enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after the civil rights movement, “we seem to have forgotten what activism is.” It is really our understanding of activism that is at issue.

Now, back to the sit-ins. They were dangerous. Civil rights activism took courage. That courage required strong ties to other activists. This was true not just of the civil rights movement in the US, but is a general characteristic of activism.

But, “The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all.” Social media (Twitter, Facebook) are all about weak ties. Weak ties are “in many ways a wonderful thing…But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.” Social media activism works when little is asked of people.

Activism requires not just strong ties, but also strong, centralized, hierarchical organization. Not networks. You need a hierarchy “if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment…”

As an example, Gladwell ridicules the opening story in Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, about how “the crowd” got a smart phone returned to its rightful owner. “A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls.”

Gladwell is right, in my view, to debunk the over-enthusiastic belief that the Net would sweep away all traditional institutions that stand in the way of the great populist uprising.

He is also right to debunk the notion that the Net would replace all traditional forms of governance and organization.

At this point, however, those are strawpeople. Find me someone who believes that these days.

The more plausible belief is that the Net affects the most entrenched of institutions by changing the ecology around them. So, citizen journalism has not obviated the need for professional journalism and traditional news media. Rather, a new symbiotic ecology (hmm, mixing metaphors) has arisen. Likewise, amateur scientists have not replaced professional scientists and their institutions, but the new ecology allows for the interaction of everyone with an interest, and this is changing how science is done, how it is evaluated, and how it has an effect. Likewise, the Dean campaign — and every national campaign after it — understood that it was not enough to have a social network, but that that network must be moved to take action out in the real streets of America.

Likewise, I venture that few believe that Facebook or Twitter on their own are going to bring about revolutionary political change. But that doesn’t mean that political change is unaffected by them. As the Tea Party looks like it’s rolling to victory in 2010, try to imagine that it could exist much less succeed without social media. It also needed money from Big Interests, the attention of mainstream media, and non-Net communication channels. But, who is arguing otherwise? The ecology has changed.

Further, Gladwell misses the point about strong and weak ties. He’s right that committed activism requires strong ties. But it doesn’t require many: Three like-minded friends can be enough to embolden a college student to risk sitting-in at a segregated lunch counter. Social networking services facilitate strong ties because strong ties come from weak ones, and because casual interactions among people with strong ties can strengthen those ties. Further, having lots of weak ties can encourage political action by making that action a common cause: Wow, everyone I know is going to the protest march!

Further, the effect of courageous activists (enabled through their strong ties to other activists) is magnified insofar as it emboldens and affects a far wider swath of the population. Networks of weak ties spread ideas, information, and enthusiasm faster and more effectively than letter-writing campaigns or newspaper ads. From these networks of loose ties come the new activists, the supporters of activists, and an engaged citizenry that can vote (or throw) the bums out. Courageous activists succeed within a population that is not as engaged or courageous.

Gladwell also, in my opinion, is mistaken to treat networks and hierarchies as if they were mutually exclusive. He points to the massive organizational effort it took to sustain the year-long Montgomery bus boycott. They created a large, efficient carpool service, and had a hundred full-time staffers. So, what exactly was the hierarchy required for? “Discipline and strategy,” Gladwell says, although his example also stresses organization. To this I have three reactions.

First, hierarchies are indeed good at some things. But hierarchies can work with networks. That’s how national political campaigns work in this country, for example. Hierarchies and networks are not exclusive. And networks can be powerful tools for hierarchies. Likewise, networks are never entirely flat. They can have a local center that makes decisions and organizes actions.

Second, Gladwell dismisses the contribution networks could have made to the bus boycott by pointing to the shallowness of tweets (vs. ML King’s messages from jail), the messiness of Wikipedia, and some unexplained problem with communicating through Facebook. This is sloppy from the likes of Gladwell. No one thinks MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech really would have been better if whittled down to 140 characters. But, tweets are a good way to drive people to read a longer work, and tweets are a good way of alerting a crowd when action is required. Gladwell is also wrong to say that Wikipedia is mired in a “ceaseless pattern of correction and revision.” And Facebook messaging is great for communicating among those with strong and weak ties. Three misses out of three, by my way of thinking.

Third, the strengths of hierarchies that Gladwell points to are not totally absent from networks:

Networks have their own way of making strategy: Someone puts it forward, and it catches on (including via networks of weak ties) or it doesn’t.

As far as organizing goes, there is a reason that every movement for political change now uses the Internet: it is superb for organizing. Think how much easier it would have been to set up the carpool system with its “forty-eight dispatchers and forty-two pickup stations”? An online, on-demand system would have freed up the forty-eight dispatchers, and would have made a “pickup station” out of wherever you are. Further, it would have been written overnight, for free, and open-sourced so it could be replicated in town after town and country after country.

So, Gladwell is right that the Net by itself doesn’t cause tyrannies to fall. He’s right that activism requires courage and determination. He’s right that we — not all of us, but a group of us that includes me — over-sold the Net in this regard. But he’s picking on what’s now a strawperson, and, more important, his argument pays no heed to the truly important question: How the Net, in a real world in which old institutions aren’t going away so fast, is altering the context within which brave activism occurs, spreads, and has effect.


[The next day:] R.A on the Economist site reminds us that hierarchies are fragile while networks are robust and resilient. Good point. Gladwell’s model of political upheaval seems to assume a relatively open society that will tolerate a movement with identifiable leaders. In more repressive regimes, hierarchies are too easy to disrupt.


July 1, 2010

Twitter research tool

The Web Ecology Project has released 140Kit, a research tool for tracing tweet paths. From the site: “It’s the final product of the various provisional tools we’ve used to produce our previous reports on the social phenomena of Twitter, and of lead researcher Devin Gaffney’s own work on high throughput humanities.”

  • It enables complete data pulls for a set of users or terms on Twitter, with searches running continuously.

  • The ability to download those data pulls in raw form to use for whatever you please.

  • The ability to stand on the shoulders of giants by mixing and matching existing data pulls to generate entirely new combinations of data and analysis.

  • And the ability to instantaneously generate basic visualizations around the data (term use, inequality of participation, etc).

It’s free to use and open source. So, Devin Gaffney, Ian Pearce, Max Darham, and Max Nanis:


June 20, 2010

Twitter metadata and where standards come from

Matthew Ingram at Gigagom blogs about an upcoming Twitter feature called Twitter Annotations. Well, it’s not actually a feature. It’s the ability to attach metadata to a tweet. This is potentially great news, since it will give us a way to add context to tweets and to enable machine-processing of tweets, not to mention that URLs could be sent as metadata rather than as subtractions from the 140-character limit. This is yet another example of information scaling to the point where we have to introduce more information to manage it. How about one of those bogus “laws” people seem to like (well, I know I do): Information sufficiently scaled creates a need for more information.

Twitter is specifying the way in which Annotations will be encoded, but not what the metadata types will be. You can declare a “type” with its own set of “attributes.” What types? Whatever you (or, more exactly, developers and hackers) find useful. Matthew cites a number of folks who are basically positive but who express a variety of worries, including Google open advocate Chris Messina who warns that there could be a mare’s nest of standards, that is, values for types and attributes. Dave Winer takes Google to task for slagging off on Twitter for this. I agree with his sentiment that Goliath Google ought to be careful about their casual criticisms. Nevertheless, I think Chris is right: Specifying the syntax but not the actual types and attributes will inevitably give rise to confusion: What one person tags as “topic,” someone else will tag as “subject,” and some people might have the nerve to actually use words for types in, say, Spanish or Arabic. The nerve! [THE NEXT DAY: Here’s Chris’ original post on the topic, which is more balanced than the bit Matthew excerpts, and which basically agrees with the next paragraph:]

But, so what? I’d put my money on Ev Williams and Biz Stone any time (important note: If I had money). You couldn’t have seriously proposed an idea as ridiculous as Twitter in the first place if you didn’t deeply understand the Web. So, yes, Chris is right that there’ll be some confusion, but he’s wrong in his fear. After the confusion there will be a natural folksonomic (and capitalist) pull toward whatever terms we need the most. Twitter can always step in and suggest particular terms, or surface the relative popularity of the various types, so that if you want to make money by selling via tweets, you’ll learn to use the type “price” instead of “cost_to_user,” or whatever. Or you’ll figure out that most of the Twitter clients are looking for a type called “rating” rather than “stars” or “popularity.” There’ll be some mess. There’ll be some angry angry hash tags. But better open confusion than expecting anyone — even the Twitter Lads — to do a better job of guessing what its users need and what clever developers will invent than those users and developers themselves.


Ethan explains latest Lady Gaga smash

On the Media features Ethan Zuckerman explaining the worldwide movement to save the beautiful Brazilian galvão bird. “Cala Boca Galvão!” indeed, my fellow bird-huggers!

Seriously, youll enjoy the 5 minute interview.

1 Comment »

December 26, 2009

Amplification, retweeting, and the loss of source

Jos Schuurmans usefully coins “Amplification is the new circulation.” And then he usefully worries about how to handle the fact that with each amplification, the link to the source becomes more tenuous.

The problem is that the amplification metaphor only captures part of the phenomenon. Yes, a post from a low-traffic site that gets re-broadcast by a big honking site has had its signal amplified. But the amplification happens by being passed through more hands, with each transfer potentially introducing noise, as in the archetypical game of “telephone” or “gossip.” On the other hand, because this is not mere signal-passing, each transfer can also introduce more meaning; the signal/noise framing doesn’t actually work very well here.

Retweeting is a good example and a possibly better metaphor: Noise gets introduced as people drop words and paraphrase the original, and as the context loses meaning because the original tweeter is now a dozen links away. But, as people pare down the original tweet, the signal may get stronger, and as they add their own take and introduce it into their own context, the original tweet can gain meaning.

But, Jos is particularly worried about the loss of source. As the original idea gets handed around, the link to its source may well break or be dropped. “TMZ says Brittany Murphy dead” becomes “TMZ says Brittany Murphy is dead” becomes “Brittany Murphy dead!!!!!!!!!” and then maybe even “Brittany dead!!!,” and “Britney Spears is dead!!!” Sources almost inevitably will be dropped as messages are passed because we are passing the message for what it says, not because of the metadata about its authenticity.

So, what do we do? I have a three part plan.

Part one: Continue to innovate. For example, there’s probably already some service that is following the tracks of retweets, so that if you want to see where a RT began, you can. Of course, any such service will be imperfect. But the all of the Internet’s strengths come from its imperfection.

Part Two: Try to be responsible. When it matters, include the source. This will also be a highly imperfect solution.

Part Three: Cheer up. Yes, it sucks that amplification results in source loss. But, it’s way better than it was before the Internet when all sorts of bullcrap was passed around without any practical way of checking it out. The Net amplifies bullcrap but also makes it incredibly easy to check it out, whether it’s a computer virus warning passed along by your sweet elderly aunt or a rumor about the spread of a real virus. Also, see Part Two: Try to be responsible. Check out rumors before committing to them. When amplifying, reintroduce lost sources.

As Jos says, amplification is the new circulation. And the new circulation tends towards source loss. It also increases both noise and meaning. And it occurs in a system with astounding tools — e.g., your favorite search engine — for the reinsertion of source.

Is it better or worse? Yes, definitely.


November 13, 2009

My talk at the Canadian Marketing Association: Markets are networks

I gave a keynote at theCanadian Marketing Association‘s Marketing Week conference in Toronto a couple of days ago. It was a new talk, and I tried to structure it carefully. I’ve gone through my slides, and here’s an extended summary of what I said (or meant) in this 35-minute (?) talk.

Title: After Conversation: Markets as Networks.

Part I: Networked Markets

As Doc Searls said, markets are conversations. But, Doc said something else that I think is just as brilliant: “There’s no market for messages.” That’s harder for marketers to hear, since it points to the essential fact of traditional marketing: The people marketers are talking to generally don’t want to hear from them. And I want to add one more thought to this mix: Markets are also networks.

Traditional markets consist of demographic slices, i.e., “social groups” of people who have never met one another. We choose particular demographics because we think they are susceptible to the same message. Thus, traditional markets are not real things to which we send messages. Rather, messages make markets.

Now, markets are networks…networks of people who converse and interact, spread out across the Internet. For example, at any one moment there are some number of parents with sick children who are on the Net talking and posting, on blogs, discussion boards, social networking sites, Twitter, etc. etc. etc. But that networked market is substantially different in 12 hours because their kids are getting better. And of course 12 hours is an extremely long periodicity for these networked markets. They change constantly. Think of how ideas ripple through Twitter. Furthermore, not everyone in the market of parents with sick kids are in it the same way. The illnesses vary, the seriousness of the illnesses vary, the relationships vary. Think about the gay network in this regard: I’m sometimes in this network because I blog about gay marriage. But if you, as marketer, fail to recognize the complexity of the interests in this group, then you’ll be sending gay dating solicitations to people who don’t want them, including some who are in this network because they’re posting homophobic comments. Networked markets are rippling, ever-changing, hugely complex, inherently unstable, and thus thoroughly unlike traditional markets.

In short: You can’t step into the same market twice.

In fact, these webs of connected people are characterized by their differences as well as by their agreements, by their individuality as well as their connection. (Q: What is the opposite of message discipline? A: The Internet.) This is very different from traditional markets which are defined by demographic similarities. Networked markets are equally defined by their differences.

Part II: The network properties of networked markets

Networked markets take on some of the properties of networks. Let’s look at a few of those properties.

1. Markets at every scale. The Internet works at every scale, unlike any other medium. [I should have said: …perhaps except for paper.] E.g., Twitter works for Ashton Kutcher with 3M followers and for a tween with her 10 friends. But it is a different thing at each scale. The same is true for networked markets. It’s crucial to understand the social differences at each scale; thinking of Twitter as a single phenomenon is a mistake (for example).

2. Markets are held together by the same “glue” as networks. What holds the network together (not at the level of bits ‘n’ routers, of course) are the interests people express through their links. Likewise for networked markets. Shared interests, not messages, make networked markets.

3. Markets are transparent like networks. Because the connective tissue of the network consists of links, and those links tend to be public, the network tends towards transparency. (Note: tends towards.) I want to mention three types of marketing transparency that I think are crucial.

a. Transparent sources: We need to be able to follow links to the sources (the facts and conversations) that lead you to what you say.

b. Transparent self: We need to know you are who you say you are (no astroturfing or phony reviews!), but we also need to know that you know that you’re a fallible human like the rest of us. The posturing and perfectionism of traditional marketing increasingly will decrease the company’s credibility.

c. Transparent interests. The customer’s interest in a product often are not aligned with the company’s interest in selling it to her. The customer’s interests are complex (buying a bike to save gas money and to get some exercise and to save the earth and to feel like a kid), while, at worst, the company has a single interest. Because of this potential mismatch of interests, we need transparency about the company’s interests.

Summary: Transparency of (a) sources to trust your facts, of (b) self to trust you, of (c) interests to trust what you’re up to on our Internet.

Part III. Four challenges (plus one)

1. How does a marketer deal with the non-alignment of interests? At the very same time, the market may range from wanting to sing kumbayah to being near-violently politically opposed. Tough problem. Part of the answer is to be willing to embrace a straightforward advocacy (with facts and reasons and full transparency) about positions much of the market may disagree with. In a network based on difference, honest disagreement is better than a phony agreeableness.

2. Cluetrain advocated authenticity. Over the years, I find myself agreeing more with Chris Locke‘s skepticism about the concept. What does it mean for an organization to be authentic? It’s hard even to make sense of the term. E.g., does it mean that everyone has to agree with the founder’s opinions? Does it mean that people who are working there simply because it’s a job have to pretend to be enthusiastic?

3. Companies are hierarchical because hierarchies scale up to the size of an army (= the number of Ashton Kutcher’s Twitter followers). But hierarchies don’t interact with networks very comfortably. E.g., who speaks for the company?

4. Respect the conversation. Although markets are conversations, conversations are not markets. The conversations are more important than your marketing. And if you participate, then truly participate; don’t participate with the secret aim of subverting the discussion.

5. The hardest thing for marketers: Resist opportunities.

The End.

(By the way, here’s Marketing Magazine‘s brief write-up of the talk.)


September 25, 2009

Cluetrain on Twitter

Tim Beyers at FastCompany has put together an article about Cluetrain‘s reaction to Twitter. After all, we’re the “markets are conversations” people, so how do we feel about Twitter and its conversations getting valued at a billion bucks?

It turns out that the four of us think different things about Twitter, as Tim indicates in this brief article. My own view is overall quite positive, but compound. I don’t think Twitter is “closer than anything we’ve seen before” to an ideal conversational medium. Twitter conversations are pretty weird because of the brevity of tweets, but mainly because of the asymmetry of the conversation: If the people you’re talking to respond, their responses go to people who may not be following you, and you may not see their responses.

That’s not a criticism. It’s simply to say that Twitter conversations are weird, and not the closest to some Platonic ideal of conversation. It all depends on what you’re trying to do. Twitter is fantastic at some things, but not at everything. And it’s fascinating in all sorts of ways: as a social system, as a news propagation system, as a recommendation engine, as a reputational ecology…

In fact, one of the aspects of Twitter I most admire is its ability to work at multiple scales. As Chris Locke points out in the article, at Oprah-scale Twitter functions just like another broadcast, star-based system. But Twitter also works 1:1, 1:2, 1:100, and so on, functioning differently at each scale. That’s true of the Internet over all, but is not true of any (?) other medium.

So, I find myself both more positive about Twitter than a casual reader of the FastCompany article might think, but also less enthusiastic than one might take it as saying.


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