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May 16, 2011

Ethan on serendipity and cosmopolitanism

Ethan Zuckerman blogs the brilliant and delightful “extended dance mix” of his talk on serendipity at CHI 2011.


He begins by wondering why people migrate to cities, even when those cities have been vastly unappealing, as per the stink of London in the mid 19th century. “You came to the city to become a cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world.” You may still have encountered a tiny stretch of humanity that way, but you’d at least be in a position to receive information about the rest of the world. “To the extent that a city is a communications technology, it may not be a surprise that early literally portrayals of the internet seized on the city as a metaphor.”


Ethan wonders if cities actually do work as “serendipity engines,” as we hope they do. Nathan Eagle “estimates that he can predict the location of ‘low-entropy individuals’ with 90-95% accuracy” based on aggregated mobile phone records. [Marta C. Gonzalez, Cesar A. Hidalgo & Albert-Laszlo ? Barabasi recently in Nature made a related claim.] We are not as mobile as we think, and our patterns are more routinized than we’d like to believe. Even in cities we manage to mainly hang out with people like ourselves.


Likewise on the Net, Ethan says. He’s analyzed the media preferences of 33 nations, and found that countries that have 40+ million Net users tend to strongly prefer local news sources. The result is “we miss important stories.” Even if we are well-plugged in to a social network, we’re not going to learn about that which our friends do not know. Ethan reminds us that we need to worry about “filter bubbles,” as Eli Pariser calls them. While social filters are powerful, if they only filter your own network, they are likely to hide more than they show.


Against this Ethan recommends serendipity, which requires “an open and prepared mind.” We should learn from cities when designing Web spaces that enable and encourage serendipity. “What makes cities livable, creative, vital, and ultimately, safe is the street-level random encounter that [Jane] Jacobs documented in her corner of Greenwich Village.” Design to “minimize isolation.”


Ethan then talks about some of the ways we get guided serendipity in cities — friends showing you around, local favorites, treating a city like a board game via geocaching, etc. As always, Ethan has some amazing examples. (He even points to the Library Innovation Lab‘s ShelfLife project, where I work; I promise I didn’t realize that until I’d already started blogging about his post.)


I’d started blogging about Ethan’s post because I love what he says even though I have a knee-jerk negative reaction to much of what people say about serendipity on the Net. Ethan is different. His post represents a full-bodied conceptualization. I read it and I nod, smile at the next insight, then nod again. So, what follows is not a commentary on Ethan’s post. It’s actually all about my normal knee-jerk reaction. (Oh, bloggers, what _isn’t_ all about you?) I’m trying to understand why serendipity doesn’t square with the hole in my own personal pegboard.


Perhaps the problem is that I think of serendipity as a sub-class of distraction: Serendipity occurs when something that hijacks our attention (= a distraction) is worthwhile in some sense. We now have social networks that are superb at sharing serendipitous findings. So, why don’t we pass around more stuff that would make us more cosmopolitan? Fundamentally, I think it’s because interest is a peculiar beast. We generally don’t find something interesting unless it helps us understand what we already care about. But the Other — the foreign — is pretty much defined as that to which we see no connection. It is Other because it does not matter to us. Or, more exactly, we cannot see why or how it matters.

Things can matter to us in all sorts of ways, from casting a contrasting intellectual light on our everyday assumptions to opening up sluices of tears or laughter. But cosmopolitanism requires some level of understanding since it is (as I understand it) an appreciation of differences. That is, we can (and should) be filled with sorrow when we see a hauntingly disturbing photo of a suffering human in a culture about which we know nothing; that’s a connection based on the fundament of shared humanity, but it’s not yet cosmopolitanism. For that, we also have to appreciate the differences among us. Of course, appreciating differences also means finding the similarities. It is a dialectic for sure, and one so very easy to get wrong and impossible to get perfectly right: We misunderstand the Other by interpreting it too much in our own terms, or we write it off because it is so outside our own terms. Understanding always proceeds from a basic situatedness from which we make sense of our world, so cosmopolitan understanding is always going to be a difficult, imperfect dance of incorporating into the familiar that which is outside our usual ken.

This is why I don’t frame the failure of cosmopolitanism primarily in terms of serendipity. Serendipity sometimes — not in Ethan’s case — is proposed as a solution as if we can take our interest in the Other for granted: Just sneak some interesting African videos into our usual stream of youtubes of cute cats and people falling off of trampolines, and we will become more cosmopolitan. But, of course we will fast forward over those African videos as quickly as we used to turn the pages in newspapers that reported on Africa. The problem isn’t serendipity. It’s that we don’t care.

But, we can be brought to care. We know this because there are lots of examples (and Ethan recounts just a handful of the trove at his command) of our attention being arrested by cosmopolitan content. To generalize with a breadth that is sure to render the generalization vapid, cosmopolitan content that works — that gets us interested in something we hadn’t realized we cared about — seems to have two elements. First, it tells us what we need to know in order to let the otherness matter to us. Second, it is really well done. Both of these are difficult, and there is not a known formula for either of them. But there are also lots of known ways to try; Ethan gives us bunches of examples. Creating cosmopolitan content that works requires craft and, if it is to be transformative, art. It can range from the occasional Hollywood movie, to New Yorker articles, to blog posts, to Anthony Bourdain, to Ethan Zuckerman. Content that creates interest in itself may be extraordinarily difficult to craft, but it is a precusor to the possiblity of serendipity.

Take the wildly successful TED Talks as an example. They satisfy a need the “market” didn’t know it had, and if asked would probably deny: “Hey, do you have a burning interest in questioning the assumptions of bio-engineering?” TED Talks ripple through the social networks of serendipity because they create interest where formerly there wasn’t any. That’s how social serendipity works: It begins with works that through skill, craft, and art generate their own motive power. TED shows us that if we are trying to remedy the dearth of intellectually stimulating materials passing through social networks, we should worry first about creating materials that compel interest. Compelling materials create social serendipity. And the corollary: Nothing is interesting to us until it makes itself interesting to us.

But perhaps it simply comes down to this. Perhaps I don’t frame the failure of cosmopolitianism primarily as a problem with the lack of serendipity because I personally approach the world as a writer, and thus focus on the challenge of generating interest among readers. When I see people passing over a topic, I think, “Oh, it must not have been written well enough.” And on that idiosyncratic worldview, I would not seiously base an analysis of a topic as vast and important as the one that Ethan Zuckerman continues to address so profoundly.

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February 18, 2011

GlobalVoices live from Bahrain

GlobalVoices [twitter:globalvoices] is all over the Bahrainian protests:

Starting with our coverage of the Tunisian Revolution, Global Voices Online was one of the few media outlets following the story from its inception. GV authors have even become directly involved with the rebuilding of their country. During the #Jan25 Egyptian Revolution, GV authors were breaking through information blockades by reporting the events on the ground as the Egyptian government was switching the internet off. And now as protests begin to gather strength in Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain, Global Voices will be there to give you the firsthand accounts of citizen media journalists.

We invite you to follow our special coverage pages on Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain, and the rest of our Global Voices articles as we follow and amplify the voices of citizen media from around the world!

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January 1, 2011

Global voices at Global Voices

Global Voices has posted its list of most-read posts in 2010. The list includes blog posts from Haiti, Chile, Jamaica, Pakistan, Thailand, Israel, North Korea, Costa Rica, Russia, Philippines, Egypt, South Africa, Macedonia, Myanmar, Mali, Georgia, Philippines, Poland, India, Guatemala, Ecuador, Indonesia, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Japan, and Iran.

Where else do you get to hear this range of voices so clearly? Who else has a most-read list that so represents the globe?

By the way, the
#1 was the report on The Cala Boca Galvao Phenomenon, a hilarious phenomenon that Ethan Zuckerman helped popularize.

Have a fruitful new year, Global Voices. And to all the globe’s voices: Happy new year!

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November 27, 2010

Rio’s violence bloggified

Debora Baldelli has a thought-provoking post at Global Voices about the reaction in social media to the recent violence in Rio de Janeiro.

My interest was initially piqued because I was in Rio a few weeks ago for a library conference, and found the city fascinating, regretting that I had given myself only one meagre afternoon free. The beaches were empty, and the tourist industry was just groggily waking itself up. Above the eerily unused festive booths, the poor look down, quite literally, from favelas wrapping the bases of the sudden peaks emblematic of the city. The mountains then continue up in inhuman, humbling, vertical lines.

Some cities a casual visitor for a day can fool himself into thinking he understands. Not Rio.

So, I was very interested to read Debora’s round-up of what the local social media had to say about the police reaction to a wave of violence in the city. For example:

The need to know what is true or false, and which areas were or were not being attacked, made @casodepolicia launch two hashtags #everdade (#truth) and #eboato (#rumor), through which information revealed on the web was verified in real time. The tweet reached 10,000 followers on the fifth day of the terror in the city.

Debora is positive about the overall contribution of social media:

… a good portion of the violence reported after this series of attacks was already common before. The sounds of shooting are not exactly anything new in Rio de Janeiro. What is different this time, however, is that everything is happening at the same time, and everything is being spoken of, reported and investigated as part of the same giant problem. The population of the city is being tempted to speak out and be heard (whether through the Disque Denúncia [hotline] or whether on Twitter), and being taken seriously by the authorities. When a person reports via tweet, sees their report being investigated, and hears of police action, this not only stimulates the participation of residents but also gives credibility to the police. Everybody wins.

Of course, the voices being heard in the social media do not come from the favelas, as least in Debora’s report. Matters will be different yet again when we can hear those voices, instead of just feeling their gaze.

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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 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 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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April 26, 2009

Did the telegraph bring peace?

In his book The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage presents two quotations (pp. 103-104) prompted by the creation of transatlantic telegraph cables. The first is from Henry Fields:

“It brings the world together. It joins the sundered hemispheres. It unites distant nations, making them feel that they are members of one great family…An ocean cable is not an iron chain, lying cold and dead in the icy depths of the Atlantic. It is a living, fleshy bond between severed portions of the human family, along which pulses of love and tenderness will run backward and forward forever. By such strong ties does it tend to bind the human race in unity, peace and concord…it seems as if this sea-nymph, rising out of the waves, was born to be the herald of peace.”

The second is unattributed:

“The different nations and races of men will stand, as it were, in the presence of one another. They will know one another better. They will act and react upon each other. They may be moved by common sympathies and swayed by common interests. Thus the electric spark is the true Promethean fire which is to kindle human hearts. Men then will learn that they are brethren, and that it is not less their interest than their duty to cultivate goodwill and peace throughout the world.”

The obvious lessons are, first, that our enthusiasms are sometimes wildly wrong, and, second, that technology by itself doesn’t determine its effect.

And yet I wonder if the tele-utopians were entirely wrong. It is undeniable that the 150 years between the deploying of the telegraph and the rise of the Internet have been unimaginably bloody. So, in that sense, the telegraph heralded the opposite of peace.

That correlation — more communication, more war — certainly means that communication technology doesn’t bring peace. But communication technology may still be an instrument of peace. Peace — IMHO — ultimately comes from understanding that we share a world about which we care differently. The only feasible peace is a noisy peace. We only get there via communication. And I believe that overall communication technology has made us more aware of the unresolvable noisiness of the world. Simple-minded colonialism is no longer in vogue. There is an increasing understanding that no one religion or form of government is going to sweep the table (although those who think it’s their way or the highway to hell are still working their horrors). Our hearts and minds are closer to the conditions of peace than they were before the telegraph, although our governments, religions, and economic systems still have a long way to go.

No, the world is still a mess, and the warriors still tend to rise in power. Yes, communication technology enables armies to deploy on new and vast scales. But also: Peace comes from the recognition of difference that communication makes possible. The tele-utopians were comically wrong, just as are cyber-utopians who think the Net will automatically create peace. But both are also right to rejoice. The threading of the world through communication is the most fundamental condition for a noisy peace, which is the only type of peace possible in a world characterized by difference.

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April 20, 2009

Obama’s common language

Adrienne Redd uses her research into the expectations of nation-states since WWII to analyze the language in Obama’s town hall talk in Strasbourg a couple of weeks ago. She finds evidence of an understanding that the fate of sovereign nations are nonetheless intertwined…

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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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