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July 23, 2009

Khat in Somaliland, but not here

The Global Post has an interesting and brief report by Tristan McConnel (sponsored by the Pulitzer Center) on the problem in Somaliland of khat abuse. The comments raise the inevitable issues of cross-cultural understanding.

Isn’t it odd that this drug hasn’t crossed the ocean and taken root (so to speak) in the West? I can’t think of another that’s used so widely on one continent that hasn’t shown up in the West. On the other hand, my knowledge of cultural psycho-pharmacology is pretty much limited to what’s in The Encyclopedia of Things You Already Know.

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July 20, 2009

Facebook at 250M huddled masses

Brian Solis reports on Facebook’s claim of 250M souls, as well as on the social networking sites popular in various parts of the world.

Simply the map of the global distribution of Facebook users makes clear the danger of building our social nets in proprietary systems that don’t start from the premise that first they must interoperate.

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July 3, 2009

Coup Coup Catch You?

Ethan is once again knowledgeable and provocative, this time about what it takes for a coup to get some attention in this country. He compares the media’s interest in Honduras’ institutional coup (as a guy called it last night on The News Hour) with the almost complete ignoring of various coups in Africa.

Ethan concludes (but read the whole thing):

So why does Honduras get the Iran treatment, while Niger is ignored like Madagascar? Proximity? Strategic importance? (though Niger’s got massive uranium reserves – you remember yellowcake, right?) It’s not population – Niger’s roughly twice the size of Honduras. Expectation? Perhaps we’re sufficiently accustomed to African coups (Madagascar, Mauritania and Guinea in the past year) that Niger’s not a surprise.

Or perhaps all the pundits are still trying to figure out which one’s Nigeria and which one’s Niger…

Ethan conspicuously leaves out racism — the soft racism (as that ol’ phrase President George W. Bush once put it) of not knowing, not caring, and not bothering to develop a narrative.

(By the way, be sure to click on the link in the quote from Ethan. It leads to one of The Onion’s funniest videos ever.)

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June 16, 2009

[berkman] Beth Kolko: Form, Function and Fiction

Beth Kolko is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk on what her group, Deiagn for Digital Inclusion, has been doing. It’s an interdisciplinary group.

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.

[Beth talks quickly. Hard to keep up.] The questions driving her group’s work: What ICTs are adopted in diverse communities and why. What do they do with ICTs? The aim is to design better technologies and policies.

When we name a technology, she says, we assume technologies have consistent meanings across cultural contexts. But that’s not true. There’s a whole lot of slippage. If you study diversity across disciplines, there’s a lot of research that says that diversity lends robustness. Without diversity, systems are fragile. He groups wants to make design more aware of diversity.

How do you have a conversation that brings in the hardware and software folks, and the social science folks? She says that in her talk, the division between form and function will get smudgy.

Beth says that if you say you study the developing world, they get sleepy because they don’t see how it relates to what they’re doing. So, she and others have reframed this as “resource constraint.” This removes the geographic focus. It also makes it dynamic, not static. Resources can be anything from economic and educational to screen size. The question is: How do you design to accommodate this complexity.

She goes through the methods for the Central Asia portion of her work. It’s quantitative and qualitative. Surveys every year, four countries, 1000 people in each. Interviews with different populations, usabilities tests, ethnography.

Form of tech in resource-constrained environments

1. Internet as weather-dependent technology. In Cambodia in a small village, the Net goes down after it rains because it interrupts the satellite access. The Net is neither ubiquitous nor constant. In Central Asia, access is far more sporadic and they are on for far less time in each session than is typical in, say, Cambridge, MA.

2. Internet as a public resource. Beth’s Central Asian research use the Net about equally at a home, at a friend’s home, and at school/work.

3. Mobile phone as bank. The use of phones for banking has design implications, e.g., how visible is your password?

Function of tech in resource-constrained environments

1. ICTs as strengthener of social neworks. With demographics taken off the table, people who use conventional social networks are more likely to use technology. And people who use technology are more likely to trust others. [I think I got that wrong.] Most people in Beth’s studies use their mobile phones at least once a day.

2. Mobiles as a platform for fraud. Beth got a 419 Nigerian scam SMS msg when in Kenya. “What we use mobiles for is complex.”

3. SMS as a weapon. The role of SMS in revolution. She points to Iran.

4. Games as tech training. Games provide the first touch of ICT for many people. It’s cheaper in Cental Asia to play LAN games than access the Net. About 64% of game players are urban, and 63% are men.

From understanding to building

In one project, they studied how people used mobiles, they’re use of social networks, and the pain points of everyday life. (This is “design ethnography.”) They decided to look at mobile social software (MoSoSo), and a public transporation project (Starbus). They tried to adopt the notion of “personas” based on their surveys and interviews. (Personas are models of typical users.) MoSoSo allows recommendations filtered through one’s social network. Starbus addresses the problem that intercity buses don’t depart until they’re filled. Starbus puts a GPS box on the buses so they can send SMS msgs about where the bus is. You can text it to find out when it will come to the stop near you.

MoSoSo and Starbus both arise from the research that drills down into what it means to be an Internet user.

Q: When do porn and gambling enter the equation?
A: Not gambling because of banking issues. Plenty of porn.

Q: Why do people who use the Net report higher levels of trust?
A: Don’t know.

Q: Correlation between quality of life and Internet use?
A: Hard to know what that means.

Q: Are the public access centers set up by gov’t agencies or entrepreneurial people?
A: The latter.

Q: [me] If I were a businessperson designing for a market…
A: Avoid generalizations about that people X do Y. Get real data about how people are actually using the tech. E.g., if people don’t have GPS in their phones, Starbus opens up the GPS on the bus as a community resource.

Q: [lokman] You have longitudinal studies. Does the slower adoption rate come because of a lack of local content.
A: We’ve done captures of web sites from ’03 or ’04. We’ve looked at the change over time. Until ’07 or ’08, the government site at Uzbekistan said the purpose of the site was to restrict info. I suspect the variance in adoption rate has to do with the split between communication and information tech. Abstract info doesn’t resonate in resource-constrained environments.

Q [colin]: Also, the lack of new media literacy. How does trust and social networks feed into that?
A: The issue of info literacy gets complicated in a post-Soviet context. What looks like media illiteracy may be a different type of media literacy. People sometimes mimeograph materials off the Net and distribute them, which is a different type of media literacy. [Tags: ]

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June 2, 2009

[berkman] Lokman Tsui: Beyond objectivity

Lokman Tsui is giving a Berkman talk called “Beyond Objectivity: Global Voices and the future of Journalism.” This is based on research he’s been doing for his doctoral dissertation.

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.

Lokman has been long interested in the Chinese Internet. He was born and raised in Amsterdam, and says that the Dutch often don’t like difference and diversity; they’re struggling with the idea of cultural complexity. After wrestling with what to study, he talked with Andrew Lih and came away wanting to study something that works but that we don’t understand well. Lokman chose Global Voices.

He’s interested in “how the world comes to know itself.” Lokman thinks journalism is crucial to this. James Carrey [sp?]: The public is what forms when people get together to talk about the news. Now, with the Internet, we have strangers everywhere. “What does that mean for the kind of journalism we want?” Lokman cites Habermas. We need to re-think journalism. “My purpose here is not to celebrate the Internet” or to dismiss the dangers, but to see it as an historic opportunity. By thinking about the global nature of communication, we can design better institutions.

His research begins with a study of GV as a a “newsroom.” What are the journalists’ routines? How do they socialize? How do they get news? E.g., it used to be easy and convenient to get info from gov’t sources, leading to a bias towards those sources. But the GV newsroom is different. Multicultural, global. And the newsroom is online, which leads to different interactions and shapes the news. We need a new conceptual toolkit to understand it.

Is GV journalism at all? GV is the trickster of journalism, in Lewis Hyde’s sense: it provokes us to respond and develop. GV and journalism are both ways of seeing. There are three ideals of journalism, intertwined with ideals of democracy. (1) Professional J, with liberal democracy, aimed at providing information. (2) Alternative media, with participatory democracy, aimed at representation. (3) Public journalism along with deliberative democracy, aimed at conversation.For a long time, we’ve taken objectivity as the “gold standard” of journalism. But this doesn’t make sense for public journalism; it makes no sense to ask whether a conversation is objectivity. How do we judge conversations? GV gives some hints. GV supports “communicative” democracy (a la Iris Young) , aiming at conversation, and replacing objectivity with hospitality. Habermas was thinking of coffee houses where people have to bracket differences to enable conversation. Hospitality enables conversations even when there’s a disparity of power. Differences can be very useful in having a good conversation. E.g., the powerful host serves the guest, subverting the power relationship. That’s hospitality. It’s a way of judging journalism as well, seeking to include difference and diversity.

Hospitality goes back to Kant’s “Perpetual Peace.” His third law suggests that hospitality is a right based on the fact that we share a world. Kant says we cannot refuse a visitor if it will lead to his/her destruction. Hospitality is about access, recognition, and appropriate response. Arendt wrote about intersubjectivity as a way toward truth. We now have an abundance of stories on line. The constraints have changed, so the way we judge journalism should change. The challenge is that, while the cost of speech as gone down, our attention is still scarce.At RottenTomatoes.com, the objectivity is in the dry summary. But the subjective reviews are more interesting and useful. The professionals should aggregate and amplify all these voices. You need to put them all together. What would an aggregation site look like for the news? It’d look a bit like GV. You get curated news and posts and tweets, and then comments and conversation.

Q: [me] Why has the term “hospitality” become less used precisely when we are most in contact with different cultures?
A: It may be partially due to the paradox of choice, and a fear of the unknown that’s come about in recent years. We’re very happy to send our products, our TV programs, and our money everywhere. But the flow of people is restricted. And it’s a matter of being able to listen, which some places are better at than others. I’m playing with the hospitality ratio: how much you listen vs. how much you speak. E.g., how many films you import vs. expert. A few years ago I looked at how many links link back to you and how many links to others. I compared a-list blogs and newspapers. Newspapers didn’t link out much at all.

Q: How do we train people for journalism?
A: J is a craft as well as a profession. The Internet is making us think about J as a craft: pursuing excellence for its own sake in something you care about. Most GV people think of themselves as craftspeople. Q: Where’s the hook in what you’re saying? And, btw, journalist didn’t come out of people seeking the truth but hard-drinking people who were getting paid to present a point of view. Also, you might look at Erik Erikson.

Q: Hospitality is reciprocal. How might the concept of respect apply to journalism?
A: Reciprocity is a huge part of hospitality. It means journalist need to include more views.Q: There are many public spheres, even within GV.
A: Yes.

Q: Does GV connect to other kinds of civic spaces, other than journalism?
A: GV isn’t just a bunch of people trying to do journalism. It’s an infrastructure for other sorts of projects, such as translation, herdict.org… There are tons of other civic practices there. Q: [ethanz] I want to temper some of your optimism. I think it’s great that you’re offering a new criterion — hospitality — for evaluating journalism. I think these ideas get stronger in combination. My main criticism of your work is that you’re not critical enough of GV [which Ethan co-founded]. GV is at best partially successful.

[I missed the last few questions. Sorry.] [Tags: ]

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May 25, 2009

That cocky red sauce

And here I thought that having an emotional attachment to the red Sriracha hot sauce you find on the counters of Asian and vaguely Asian restaurants was like having a crush on ketchup! But Ethan has validated my feelings, as he so often does, as well as presenting a recipe for Sriracha caramel candies that simply has to be better than it sounds.

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May 13, 2009

TED translates

TED has started a great new project: Distributed translations of TED Talks. Taking a page from Global Voices, it’s crowd-sourcing translations.

This is exactly what should happen and is a great solution for relatively scarce resources such as TED talks. Figure out how to scale this and get yourself a Nobel prize.

By the way, TED has also introduced interactive transcripts: Click on a phrase in the transcript and the video skips to that spot. Very useful. And with a little specialized text editor, we could have the edit-video-by-editing-text app that I’ve been looking for.

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May 1, 2009

On being a fool in a foreign public

Yet another important post from Ethan Zuckerman. He’s working through what it takes to connect with others who are unlike us, and why the Internet has not done much of a job replacing airplane tickets as the way to learn to love difference. Most of the post — which proceeds by telling several stories — puts it in terms of the value of dorkiness. But at the end, Ethan expresses its fuller form: We have to be willing to be a fool in public — and a foreign public, in this case — if we are to forge the bonds that will let us love the difference in others. And all I’d add to this magnificent post is that (it seems to me) in the moment we let ourselves become the fool, we acknowledge the dignity of the place, and we become the foreigner in a homeland.

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April 11, 2009

World music

I know I’m late to the PlayForChange.com party, but this is a pretty impressive video, on several grounds. Don’t be misled by the opening; it’s not really just about a street musician.


In a semi-related story, the YouTube orchestra is getting ready to play Carnegie hall. To join, you had to post an audition video on YouTube…

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April 6, 2009

Ethanz at his best

Ethan Zuckerman has a fantastic post about Paul Simon’s South African collaboration. It’s a long, complex story that Ethan tells with his usual clarity and gusto, but it’s not about Paul Simon so much as about the nature of paths between cultures. The simple is complex because cultures emerge from (and shape) history, and history is everything there is plus some more on top of that.

Few can combine his simultaneous grasp of details, his breadth, and his ability to synthesize context. There’s also his vast heart. Read the post. Only Ethan could have written it.

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