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Sasha Costanza Chock on Immigrant Rights and Transmedia Organizing

November 6, 2014 - 3:43pm

Today’s Comparative Media Studies colloquium features one of our own, Assistant Professor of Civic Media, Sasha Costanza-Chock. His new book, “Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets!” explores the world of transmedia organizing and the immigrant rights movement.

His talk tonight focuses on his background in media making, activism and scholarship, before zooming into the immigrants rights movement specifically, and one aspect of his work, the professionalization and accountability of social movements

Sasha’s background is in the world of independent media, including production of movies like “This is What Democracy Looks Like”, shot and edited by teams of activists working together. On moving to LA to work on his dissertation, he began working on the VozMob platform, a tool that allows people with low-end mobile phones to publish content online. The tool continues to be used by working class immigrants in Los Angeles to document their lives and work.

On coming to Center for Civic Media, Sasha worked with our developers and others to build a hosted version of Vozmob, Vojo.co, which is now used by over 100 groups to collect and disseminate information, including the Sandy Storyline project, which won a major documentary award for their documentation of Hurricane Sandy.

More recently, he’s helped launch Contratados, which is basically a Yelp for labor brokers, the people who recruit agricultural workers to jobs in the United States. Contratados is a transmedia project, using online tools, radio, paper flyers and others to bring information about immigration rights and practices to vulnerable populations.

Sasha explains that his work is best understood as participatory research, which sometimes looks like media making, sometimes like activism and sometimes like research. This book is based on ten years work in the immigrant rights movement as an activist and scholar.

To understand this space, Sasha uses the concepts of Media Ecology to understand the complex world of English and Spanish language media, online and offline media, as well as concepts like Transmedia Organizing, Social Media Movement Practices, and Critical Digital Media Literacies. He suggests we think about media in terms of a read/write/execute movement – we need to consume media, make it ourselves, and use it to make change in the world. Sasha argues that making media is a critical path towards engagement in activism: making media is often a first step towards a deeper involvement and engagement in activism.

Stepping back to explain the content of the immigrant rights movement, Sasha explains that the immigrants rights community has been deeply disappointed by the Obama administration’s aggressive enforcement of immigration laws – he is often termed “the deporter in chief”. Activists are incensed by a massively expanded immigration enforcement budget, now over $3 billion a year and programs like SCOMM (secure communities), which collects biometric information on anyone who is arrested (even if they are not charged or tried) and checks to see if they have legal status to remain in the US. This program was rolled out as an optional program, but local law enforcement discovered that they would not receive federal monies if they opted out. Many local law enforcement agencies dislike SCOMM, as it tends to break down trust between local law enforcement and communities.

Bills like SB1070 – the “driving while brown” bill, which allowed people to be stopped under suspicions of being undocumented – have been challenged in courts, but there’s a large number of dangerous regulations on the books.

Sasha offers the observation that there are complex economic reasons why we might be seeing a rise in militarized immigration enforcement. Private prisons and detention facilities, biometric systems are powerful political and economic actors. Of the 30-40,000 people incarcerated on any given night, roughly half are housed in private prisons, and represent a growth segment for companies like Corrections Corporation of America.

It’s not just about profitability – it’s about the expansion of the security state. Surveillance and security systems have a tendency to expand, even if they’re not effective or profitable. Once you begin building SCOMM, there’s a compelling logic to expanding it to each county, to link it to other databases. Systems like e-verify are only roughly 50% effective, but they continue to expand.

The criminalization of immigration in the US is characterized as a racial project, a reproduction and maintenance of whiteness and racial hierarchy, Sasha argues, citing a long history of research on American immigration and discrimination against the Chinese and other groups. Our version of immigration also supports heteronormativity and patriarchy, allowing immigration for reunification of families, but only traditionally structured families (no same-sex marriage included.) He reminds us that the US is an ongoing project of settler colonialism, a consolidation and control over the borders and “body” of the nationstate, which is ultimately a colonized and occupied state taken from native peoples.

What do immigrant rights groups do in this hostile context? How do they tell their stories and work to shape these systems? We need to consider the shape of an English-language mass media system that tends to be overwhelmingly negative towards immigrant mobilization and narratives. A center-left media occasionally pays attention to issues of the undocumented, but tends to paint immigration as a balance between border security and “a path towards citizenship”. Even in the center-left, there’s an acceptance of the idea of “good immigrants”, implying bad immigrants who need to be kept out.

The rise of outlets like Univision, Telemundo and La Opinion have led to a more subtle dialog on Spanish-language media. This group has become quite powerful in mobilizing, with Spanish-language DJs cooperating to call people in the streets to protest a Sensenbrenner immigration bill. Sasha urges us to consider community media as well. Even with small reach in comparison to the national outlets, these outlets serve as legitimators to activist and community organizations.

Social media plays a role as well, both in terms of organizing actions and giving participants a voice. Sasha wants to focus specifically on how social media can augment relationships with reporters, allowing activists to amplify their message more effectively than sending out press releases. All these pieces function simultaneously, and smart actors in this space learn to operate across these media through transmedia organizing.

The term is descended from Marsha Kinder and Henry Jenkins’s work on Transmedia Storytelling. Kinder looked at the way that stories expanded not just through film but through toys and marketing tie-ins, creating storyworlds that are shaped in part by their expansion into multiple medias and markets. Jenkins sees this work changing the nature of storytelling and changing the media itself, sometimes making it more open to participation and counternarrative. Sasha expands this to consider how storytelling can be accountable and open to movement actors, and how creating media can transform people into movement participants.

In the immigrant rights movement, work is cross-platform: posters, mobile applications, films. What’s important is that people’s media strategy is explicitly cross-platform. Organizers are smart enough to know that they need Spanish language media to cover actions, then push those stories to their base via social media.

This media is participatory – Sasha points to the “Undocumented and Unafraid” campaign as a strategy in which creating media and disseminating it is a key action in joining a movement. A street action was complemented by a Tumblr (for people who couldn’t participate in person) and a video produced after the fact (which Sasha shows.) The movement draws explicitly on the LGBT struggle for acceptance through coming out, and looks specifically at the idea of Undocuqueer – coming out as undocumented to LGBT peers and as LGBT to the undocumented community.

Media production is rooted in a particular community action being taken. Sasha shows us a capture from a UStream of an occupation of an Obama campaign office in Colorado – the stream allowed thousands to follow the campaign for executive action to grant relief to undocumented youth. Dreamers succeeded in forcing Obama to make significant changes to deprioritize deportation of undocumented youth, and there’s now a discussion about the possibility of a return to sit in and occuption to seek change at a moment where change through Congress looks impossible.

The movement is careful in discussing framing. They are concerned with the framing of “I was brought here through no fault of my own”, because that’s a narrative that criminalizes parental behavior. Which narrative you pick – no fault of my own or a broader narrative – helps determine what you advocate for: reform for undocumented youth, or for all undocumented people.

Finally, Sasha reminds us that this work is transformative. By learning how to make and share media, the movement is expanded and the movement’s reach and capabilities are expanded.

Sasha sees this dynamic of transmedia organizing happening in other activist movements, including the Occupy movement. It’s also not unique to contemporary movements – he references research by Rogelio Lopez, carried out at Center for Civic Media, that looked at participatory and transmedia organizing by the Farm Worker movement from 1962-72.

Sasha closes by looking at one of the issues he explores in his work, the professionalization and accountability of social movements. There’s a long scholarship around this issue, looking at ways in which social movements become 501c3 nonprofit organizations. When you make the change from social movement to nonprofit, Sasha points out, you lose the right to advocate for specific candidates. When organizations make this change, start doing the dance with funders, they become increasingly service oriented and depoliticized.

In parallel, there’s a professionalization of transmedia production. Some years ago, “transmedia production” was a hot new topic – in 2010, the Producer’s Guild of America began issuing “transmedia producer” credits associated with films. You can now hire a transmedia producer to create an ad campaign or a cross-platform strategy to market a film.

In the last two years, we’ve seen three professionally produced transmedia campaigns. “Define American” is a campaign from Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer-winning journalist who identifies as undocumented and queer. The project launched with a video, “Define American”, and a website, which lean heavily on web-based media like Tumblr and Facebook posts, as well as YouTube videos. Vargas has now produced a full length documentary called “Documented”, which explores this movement as well as Vargas’s personal journey. Sasha points out that the film was produced by an undocuqueer individual and has several undocumented production team members. However, there’s an argument that the documentary continues to support a narrative of “the good immigrant”.

He shows us a second documentary, “The Dream Is Now”, produced by the Emerson Collaborative, a foundation started by Steve Jobs’s widow. It’s a professional production, put together by people involved with An Inconvenient Truth, and was screened within the White House. But there are problems with the project. When you arrived at The Dream Is Now website, a modal box pushes you to sign a petition to support the DREAM Act. But the movement had moved on, Sasha tells us, and was now pushing for comprehensive immigration reform, not throwing DREAMers parents under the bus. Activists demanded that The Dream Is Now push a different set of action, but it took months to convince Emerson to change to meet the needs of the movement base. It was a beautiful and powerful piece of media, Sasha notes, but there are issues about accountability to the base of the social movement.

FWD.us is the third project Sasha features. He first shows “the leaders behind the movement”, who are (predominantly white) Silicon Valley CEOs. The campaign focuses on the ways in which immigrants represent a large percentage of the American workforce. One of the main emphases of the film is the need to increase the number of high skilled visas and allow DREAMers to contribute to the US economy. The video features 400 groups fighting for immigration reform… which turn out to be Silicon Valley companies. Sasha points out that most movement actors don’t have a problem with more high-tech workers… but the first policy plank of FWD.us is “secure our borders”, which is a policy that pushes people to cross the US/Mexico border in increasingly dangerous and insecure ways. They support e-verify, a program that auditors have found has a very high rate of false positives, in part because Silicon Valley will get the contracts to build these systems. While this is a deeply professional campaign, it’s unaccountable to the base of the movement and is erasing the broader movement history, replacing citizen organizations with tech firms.

There’s a nice narrative – organizations that have larger budgets are less accountable to the base of the movements. But it’s messy – Jose Antonio Vargas teamed up with FWD.us to promote his documentary. And undocumented youth wrote a letter to Vargas critiquing him for supporting a good immigrant/bad immigrant narrative, making it clear that he did not represent all the undocumented.

Sasha ends with questions: do greater resources always mean less community accountability? Is there always a tension between artistic freedom and strong storytelling and community accountability? Sasha believes we can have accountability mechanisms that don’t require the community to sign off on each stage of film production, but do have a powerful relation to community issues. Ultimately, Sasha is interested in building a culture of activism centered on the idea of “Nothing About Us Without Us”, framed by disability rights activist James Charlton.

Sasha invites Sophia Campos, one of the leaders of United We Dream, to the stage to react to his presentation. She points out that the movement has a culture of reflection, but hasn’t been able to publish a book like the one Sasha has. These meta-conversations about the movement can be repetitive and draining, and it’s helpful to have a careful consideration of the history of the movement to refer to. She agrees with Sasha’s contention that the media is a critical piece of the movement – before the Internet, she didn’t know that there were other undocumented people outside of California. In 2010, the internet allowed the movement to come to a higher level of organization and collaboration with unprecedented speed. Knowing that people were working across the country on the issues was a powerful feeling for movement actors.

Critically, the movement has been able to build its own narrative, and it’s been critical to move in the directions they’ve needed of going. She notes that the movement still needs mechanisms for accountability, which makes it helpful to have scholars like Sasha thinking about how the movement and those who want to help push it forward get engaged.

Desi asks why media making is such an important onramp to movement participation. Sasha makes clear that he doesn’t think media making is the most important aspect of movement building, just an important and understudied onramp. In sitting down and deciding how to tell your story, you are likely to contact others and share your experiences, as well as reflecting on the structures you’re struggling against. That struggle tends to lead to a social movement identity. Sophia that producing media is a way of combatting the isolation associated with the experience of being undocumented, and seeing support from others throughout the US going through the struggle you are experiencing.

A questioner makes clear that he’s frustrated by this as a “one sided” presentation advocating “illegal immigration”. He asks whether those who oppose illegal immigration can use the same tools to challenge unrestricted immigration. Sasha notes that the right has used every media at their disposal to make arguments, and argues that those counterarguments are as emotional and manipulative as arguments from the immigrants rights movement. He argues that it’s not an even playing field between powerful corporate actors who control broadcast TV and are likely to shape opinion against immigrant, and that the enthusiasm for social media may reflect a hope of countering those narratives.

Ian Condry asks whether there are new ideas about framing the immigration debate. Is the frame of “lawbreaking and amnesty”, which is gaining some traction, more successful than a narrative of the benefits of immigration, which seems well supported by American history. The idea of DREAMers clearly got through, he suggests, and wonders if there’s a way to embrace its power without the consequence of throwing parents under the bus. Sophia notes that issues of movement politics as well as deep legacies of racism and colonialism come into these questions of framing. The DREAMer framing was powerful because it was a narrative that came from the immigrant community, but sometimes failed to respect the radical, rooted message that the entire system of immigration needs reform. Within that framework, there’s then a question of what’s feasible, and how to negotiate for what people need now in terms of relief. Sasha notes that there’s an instrumentalist approach to media in which you A/B test your way through messages, but that this approach to framing runs the risk of coming into conflict with the community you are messaging around. The path forward has to give the affected community the ability to control the messaging, which may lead to less effective messaging in the short term, but will allow for a messaging driven by ethics and values in the long term.

Jim Paradis notes that he’s impressed with the range of objectives the movement is taking on, from inclusion in higher ed, to broader reform around immigration. He wonders how the movement is putting together a strategy to choose between competing objectives. Sasha notes that it’s a matter of constant debate within the movement: what are we working for short and long term? Political operatives tend to advise we pick a small, specific thing and message around it. But there’s a recognition that there’s a broad cultural shift around the idea of who’s a rights-holding human being. To transform ideas about immigration, we may need to win the larger battle to shift a vision of who’s human.

Jing Wang asks whether there are cross-racial alliances in the immigrant rights movement and what the dynamics of those alliances are. She wonders if the framework Sasha is advocating is equally good for movements led by Asian immigrants. Sasha notes that there is organizing and coalition work across different communities. Sophia notes that there are cultural challenges in this organizing, not just with activists but in connecting their parents, but that these movements are moving forward. Also, the movement is now trying to expand beyond immigration and into the broader space of challenging the for-profit prison movement.

A questioner who works on immigrant rights notes that he rarely attends academic presentations because of concerns about community accountability. He thanks Sasha for his consideration on that issue and asks how the activist community can best work with engaged scholars. Sasha notes that it’s easy for people with privilege, including scholars, to extract stories from communities and make profits with them. He points to work he does at MIT, teaching a Collaborative Design Studio course that brings MIT students together with community organizations to work together productively. This includes laying out explicit expectations about responsibility, participation and ownership in these processes. We need a broader transformation in institutional processes, Sasha argues, to ensure that research serves the needs of a community.

Rogelio Lopez closes with a question about the ways in which movements can spread across the world, where the Ferguson “Hands Up” protest appears on the streets of Hong Kong. What does this mean for movements when these frames spread across nations? Sasha notes that this is an exciting moment, when symbols and tactics circulate at greater speed than any other moment in human history. We see local instantiations of these techniques, and they bubble up at different moments in time – Occupy stalled in the US but came to the fore again in Hong Kong. Power is continually threatened by the potential of horizontal, people’s power. Sophia notes that the spread of ideas on the internet really benefits from the face to face organizing we’ve seen in the immigrant rights movement, which can keep it rooted in communities.

Categories: Blog

Helen Nissenbaum on Ad Nauseum, resistance through obfuscation, and weapons of the weak

October 6, 2014 - 3:00pm

Philosopher Helen Nissenbaum is one of the leading thinkers about the ethical issues we face in digital spaces. Her work on privacy as “contextual integrity” is one of the most tools for understanding why some online actions taken by companies and individuals feel deeply transgressive while others seem normal – we expect online systems to respect norms of privacy appropriate for the context we are interacting in, and we are often surprised and dismayed when those norms are violated. At least as fascinating, for me at least, Nissenbaum doesn’t just write books and articles – she writes code, in collaboration with a team of longtime collaborators, which brings her strategies for intervention into the world, where others can adopt them, test them out, critique or improve them.

Professor Nissenbaum spoke at MIT last Thursday about a new line of inquiry, the idea of obfuscation as a form of resistance to “data tyranny”. She is working on a book with Finn Brunton on the topic and, to my delight, more software that puts forward obfuscation as a strategy for resistance to surveillance.

Her talk begins by considering PETs – privacy enhancing technologies – building on definitions put forth by Aleecia McDonald. In reacting to “unjust and uncomfortable data collection”, we wish to resist but we do not have the capacity within the systems themselves. We can create privacy enhancing tools as a mode of self-help, and tools that leverage obfuscation fit within the larger frame of PETs, self-help and resistance.

She defines “data tyranny” drawing on work by Michael Walzer, whose work focuses on approaches to ethics in practice: “You are tyrannized to the extent that you can be controlled by the arbitrary decision of others.” Obfuscation, Nissenbaum tells us, fights against this tyranny.

Using her framework of privacy as contextual integrity, from Privacy in Context (2010), she explains that privacy is not complete control of our personal information, nor is it perfect secrecy. Instead, it is “appropriate information flow that is consistent with ideal informational norms.” This contextual understanding is key, she explains, “I don’t believe that a right to privacy is a right to control information about oneself, or that any spread of information is wrong.” What’s wrong is when this flow of information is inconsistent with our expectations given the context. Sharing information about what books we’re searching for with the librarian we asked for help doesn’t mean we’ve consented to share that information with a marketer looking to target advertisements to us – we expect one sort of sharing in that context and are right to feel misused when those norms are bent or broken.

Different privacy enhancing technologies use different strategies. One project Nissenbaum has collaborated on uses cryptography to facilitate resistance. Cryptagram (think Instagram plus crypto) allows you to publish password-protected photos on online social media. The photos appear as a black and white bitmap, unless you have the password (and the Cryptagram Chrome plugin installed). By encrypting the photos (with AES, and rendering the output as a JPEG), you gain finer control over Facebook’s ever-changing privacy settings, and you prevent whoever is hosting your media from attempting to identify faces in photos, or building a more detailed profile of you using information gleaned from the images.

Other PETs use data obfuscation as their core tool of resistance. Nissenbaum defines obfuscation as “The production, inclusion, addition or communication of misleading, ambiguous, or false data in an effort to evade, distract or confuse data gatherers or diminish the reliability (and value) of data aggregations.” In other words, obfuscation doesn’t make data unreadable, it hides it in a crowd.


Good luck finding Waldo now.

TrackMeNot is a project Nissenbaum began in 2006 in collaboration with Daniel Howe and Vincent Toubiana. It was a reaction to a Department of Justice subpoena that sought search query data from Google as a way of documenting online child pornography, as well as the deanonymization of an AOL data set, suggesting that individuals could be personally identified on the basis of their search queries. “The notion that all searches were being stored and held felt shocking at the time,” Nissenbaum explained. “Perhaps we all take it for granted now.”

Her friends in computer science departments told her “there’s nothing you can do about it”, as Google is unlikely to change their policies about logging search requests. So she and her colleagues developed TrackMeNot, which sends a large number of fake search queries to a search engine, along with the valid query, then automatically sorts through the results the engine sends back, presenting only the valid query. The tool works within Firefox, and she reports that roughly 40,000 users use it regularly. You can watch what queries the tool is sending out, or choose your own RSS feed to generate queries from. (From the presentation, it looks like, by default, the tool is subscribing to a newspaper, chopping articles into n-grams and sending random n-grams to Google or other engines as “cover traffic”.)

The tool has prompted many reactions, including objects that TrackMeNot doesn’t work or is unethical. Security experts have suggested to her that search engines may be able to sort out the chaff from the wheat, filtering aside her fake queries. The questions about the ethics of obfuscation are at least as interesting to Nissenbaum as a philosopher.

Obfuscation, she tells us, is everywhere. It’s simply the strategy of hiding in plain sight. She quotes G.K. Chesterton, from The Innocence of Father Brown: “Where does a wise man hide a leaf? In the forest. But what does he do if there is no forest? He grows a forest to hide it in.”

With Finn Branton, she has been investigating historical and natural examples of leaf hiding and forest growing strategies. Some are easy to understand: if you don’t want your purchases tracked by your local supermarket, you can swap loyalty cards with a friend, obfuscating both your profiles. Others are more technically complicated. During the second World War, bomber pilots began releasing black paper backed with aluminum foil before releasing their payloads. The reflective paper obscured their signal on radar, showing dozens or hundreds of targets instead of the single plane, making it possible for bombers to evade interception.

Programmers and hardware engineers routinely obfuscate code to make it difficult to replicate their work. (As someone who has managed programmers for two decades, I think unintentional obfuscation is at least as common as intentional…) But some of the best examples of obfuscation are less technical in nature. Consider the Craigslist robber, who robbed a bank in Monroe, Washington in 2008, and got away by fading into a crowd. He’d put an ad on Craigslist, asking road maintenance workers to show up for a job interview by asking them to dress in a blue shirt, yellow vests, safety goggles, a respirator mask. A dozen showed up, and the robber – also wearing the outfit – was able to get away.

Nature obfuscates as well. The orb spider, who needs her web out in the open to catch prey, needs to avoid becoming prey herself. She builds a target of dirt, grass and other material in the web, exactly the size of the spider, hoping to lure wasps to attack the diversion instead of her.

Does obfuscation work? Is it ethical? Should it be banned? Examples like the orb spider suggest that it’s a natural strategy for self-preservation. But examples like Uber’s technique of calling Gett and Lyft drivers for rides, standing them up and then calling to recruit them, which Nissenbaum cites as another example of obfuscation, raise uncomfortable questions.

“What does it mean to ask ‘Does it work?'” asks Nissenbaum. “Works for what? There is no universally externalizable criterion we can ask for whether obfuscation works.” Obfuscation could work to buy time, or to provide plausible deniability. It could provide cover, foil profiling, elude surveillance, express a protest or subvert a system. Obfuscation that works for one or more criteria may fail for others.

The EFF, she tells us, has been a sometimes fierce critic of TrackMeNot, perhaps due to their ongoing support for Tor, which Nissenbaum makes clear she admires and supports. She concedes that TrackMeNot is not a tool for hiding your identity as Tor is, and notes that they’ve not yet decided to block third-party cookies with TrackMeNot, a key step to providing identity protection. But TrackMeNot is working under a different threat model – it seeks to obfuscate your search profile, not disguise your identity.

She and Brunton are working on a taxonomy of obfuscation, based on what a technique seeks to accomplish. Radar chaff and the Craigslist robber are examples of obfuscation to buy time, while loyalty card swapping, Tor relays and TrackMeNot seek to provide plausible deniability. Other projects obfuscate to provide cover, to elude surveillance or as a form of protest, as in the apocryphal story of the King of Denmark wearing a yellow Star of David and ordering his subjects to do so as well to obscure the identity of Jewish Danes.

For Nissenbaum, obfuscation is a “weapon of the weak” against data tyranny. She takes the term “weapon of the weak” from anarchist political scholar James C. Scott, who used the term to explain how peasants in Malaysia resist authority when they have insufficient resources to start a rebellion. Obfuscatory measures may be a “weak weapon of the weak”, vulnerable to attack. But these methods need to be considered in circumstantial ways, specific to the problem we are trying to solve.

“You’re an individual interacting with a search engine”, Nissenbaum tells us, “and you feel it’s wrong that your intellectual pursuit, your search engine use, should be profiled by search engines any more than we should be tracked in libraries.” The search engines keep telling you “we’re going to improve the experience for you”. How do we resist? “You can plead with the search engine, or plead with the government. But the one window we have into the search engine is our queries.” We can influence search engines this way “because we are not able to impose our will through other ways.”

This tactic of obfuscation as the weapon of the weak is one she’s bringing into a new space with a new project, Ad Nauseum, developed with Daniel Howe and Mushon Zer-Aviv. The purpose of Ad Nauseum is pretty straightforward: it clicks on all the ads you encounter. It’s built on top of Adblock Plus, but in addition to blocking ads, it registered a click on each one, and also collects the ads for you, so you can see them as a mosaic and better understand what the internet thinks of you.

Again, Nissenbaum asks us to consider strategies of obfuscation as having many strategies towards many ends. These strategies differ in terms of the source of obfuscation, the amount and type of noise in the system, whether targets are selective or general, whether the approach is stealthy or bald-faced, who benefits from the obfuscation and the resources of who you are trying to hide from. Ad Nauseum is bald-faced, general, personal in source (though it benefits from cooperation with others) and is taking on an adversary that is less powerful than the NSA, but perhaps not much less powerful.

Aside from questions of whether this will work, Nissenbaum asks if this is ethical. Objections include that it’s deceptive, that it wastes resources, damages the system, and enables free riding on the backs of your peers. In an ethical analysis, she reminds us, ends matter, and here the ends are just: eluding profiling and surveillance, preserving ideal information norms. This is different from robbing a bank, destroying a rival, or escaping a predator.

But means matter too. Ethicists ask if means are proportionate. If there is harm that comes from obfuscation, can another method work as well? In this case, that other method can be hard to see. Opting out hasn’t worked, as the Do Not Track effort collapsed. Transparency is a false solution, as companies already flood us with data about how they’re using our data, leading us to accept policies we don’t and can’t read. Should we shape corporate best practice? That’s simply asking the fox to guard the henhouse. And changing laws could take years if it ever succeeds.

In exploring waste, free ride, pollution, damage or subversion, Nissenbaum tells us, you must ask “What are you wasting? Who’s free riding? What are you polluting? Whose costs, whose risks, whose benefits should we consider.” Is polluting the stream of information sent to advertisers somehow worse that polluting my ability to read online without being polluted by surveillance?

Big data shifts risks around, Nissenbaum tells us. As an advertiser, I want to spend my ad money wisely. Tracking users shifts my risk in buying ads. The cost is backend collection of data, which places people at risk: think of recent revelations from Home Depot about stolen credit card information. Databases that are collected for the public good, for reasons like preventing terrorism, may expose individuals to even greater risk. We need a conversation about whether there are greater goods to protect than just keeping ourselves free of terrorism.

We can understand weapons of the weak, Nissenbaum tells us, by understanding threat models. We need to study the science, engineering and statistical capabilities of these businesses. In the process we discover “enabling execution vectors”, ways we can attack these systems through hackable standards, open protocols, and open access to systems. And we need to ensure that our ability to use these weapons of the weak is not quashed by enforceable terms of service that simply prevent their use. Without having access to the inner machination of systems, Nissenbaum argues, these weapons may be all we have.

An exceedingly lively conversation followed this talk. I was the moderator of that conversation, and so I have no good record of what transpired, but I’ll use this space – where I usually discuss Q&A – to share some of my own questions for Professor Nissenbaum.

One question begins by asking “What’s the theory of change for the project?” If the goal us to collapse the ad industry as we know it, I am skeptical of the project’s success at scale. Clicking ads is an extremely unusual behavior for human websurfers – clickthrough on banner ads is a tiny fraction of one percent for most users. Clicking on lots of ads is, however, frequent behavior for a clickfraud bot, a tool that’s part of a strategy in which a person hosts ads on their site, then unleashes a program to click on those ads, giving micropayments to person for each ad clicked. Essentially, it defrauds advertisers to reward a content provider. Clickfraud bots are really common, and most ad networks are pretty good at not paying for fraudulent clicks. This leads me to conclude that much of what Ad Nauseum does will be filtered out by ad networks and not counted as clicks.

This is a good outcome, Nissenbaum argues – you’ve disguised your human behavior as bot behavior and encouraged ad networks to remove you from their system. But it’s worth thinking about the costs. If I am a content provider, attracting human users who look like bots has two costs. One, I get no revenue from them as ad providers filter out their clicks. Two, I may well lose advertisers as they decide to move from my bot-riddled site and to sites that have a higher proportion of “human” readers. She’s shifted the cost from the reader to the content host rather than crashing the system. (Offering this scenario to Nissenbaum, using myself as an example of a content provider, and positing a Global Voices that was supported by advertising, I spun a case of our poor nonprofit going under thanks to her tool. In response, she quipped “Serves you right for working with those tracking-centric companies.” I’m looking forward to a more nuanced answer if she agrees with the premise of my critique.)

If the theory of change for the project is sparking a discussion about the ethics of advertising systems – a topic I am passionate about – rather than crashing the ad economy as we know it, I’m far more sympathetic. To me, Ad Nauseum does a great job of provoking conversations about the bargain of attention – and surveillance – for free content and services. I just don’t see it as an especially effective weapon for bringing those systems to their knees.

My other question centers on the idea that this technique is a “weapon of the weak”. To put it bluntly, a tenured professor at a prestigious university is nowhere near as disenfranchised as the peasants Scott is writing about. This isn’t a criticism that Nissenbaum is disrespecting the oppression of those worse off than she is, or a complaint about making a false comparison between two very different types of oppression. Instead, it’s a question about the current state of the political process in the United States. When a learned, powerful and enfranchised person feels like she’s powerless to change the regulation of technology, something is deeply messed up. Why does the regulation of technology turn the otherwise powerful into the weak? (Or is this perception of weakness the symbol of a broader alienation from politics and other forms of civic engagement?)

I’ve been advocating a theory of civic efficacy that considers at least four possible levers of change: seeking change through laws, through markets, through shaping social norms or through code. Using this framework, we could consider passing laws to ensure that the FTC protects user privacy on online systems. Or we could try to start companies that promise not to use user data (DuckDuckGo, Pinboard) and try to ensure they outcompete their competitors. We could try to shape corporate norms, seeking acknowledgement that “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail”.

If Nissenbaum’s solution were likely to crash advertising as we know it, it might be superior to any of these other theories of change. If it is, instead, a creative protest that obscures an individual’s data and makes a statement at the cost of damaging online publishers, it raises the question of whether these means are justifiable or others bear closer consideration.

I tend to share Nissenbaum’s sense that advocating for regulation in this space is likely to be futile. I have more hopes for the market-based and norms-based theories – I support Rebecca MacKinnon’s Ranking Digital Rights project because it seeks to make visible companies that protect digital rights and allows users to reward their good behavior.

But I raise the issue of weapons of the weak because I suspect Nissenbaum is right – I have a hard time imagining a successful campaign to defend online privacy against advertisers. If she’s right that many of us hate and resent the surveillance that accompanies an ad-supported internet, what’s so wrong in our political system that we feel powerless to change these policies through conventional channels?

Categories: Blog

Coco Fusco’s introduction to the Cuban blogosphere

October 6, 2014 - 11:26am

Multimedia artist, writer, activist and teacher Coco Fusco is a visiting associate professor at MIT’s Comparative Media Studies this year, and she introduced herself to the Center for Civic Media community with a stunning talk this past Thursday, unpacking the history and the possible futures of the Cuban blogosphere. Fusco is a frequent traveler to Cuba and has interviewed many of the key figures in the space and offered an overview that’s complex, subtle and by far the most informative picture of the space I’ve heard thus far.

(Video of Fusco’s talk is available here.)

Fusco frames the Cuban blogosphere, in part, from her own background in performance art. Since 2008, when restrictions on cellphone use were lifted in Cuba, opponents to the Castro system have been engaged in activism that Fusco sees as having “a very media-savvy, performative character.” Citizen journalists and activists are sending text, videos and photos that document confrontation with state authorities, which has turned dissent into a kind of performance art.

If dissent is a performance, part of the audience is the United States. Not only is there a massive expatriate Cuban population in the US, there is a media system based and funded in the US, hungry for reports from independent Cuban bloggers. USAID has had a direct role in building this blogosphere, Fusco tells us. Her slides begin with the image of a Wifi logo painted onto a wall in the colors of the Cuban flag. These images are painted by activists, then painted over, in an ongoing battle. “If you didn’t know better, you might assume that ordinary Cubans were demanding free wifi. In fact, it’s part of a campaign by a USAID-supported group.”

The support from the US, the ways Cuba is trying to influence online speech, lead to a blogosphere in which participants are performing for multiple audiences. That said, the space has emerged as a critical digital public sphere for Cuban political dialog. Conventional public debate in Cuba is extremely limited, Fusco tells us. It’s officially organized, hosted solely in Havana, isn’t documented via video and has carefully controlled attendance. There’s no significant space for debate in Cuban daily newspapers or television, so the debates that happen in blogs, often hosted in Spain or Miami, is a critical digital public sphere.

The figures involved with this new public sphere are complicated. Elicér Ávila, blogger at Diário de Cuba, is supported by money from the US National Endowment for Democracy, send through Spain, Fusco tells us. On the one hand. he’s famous for confronting a government official in one of these staged official meetings, and his blog is a key part of the Cuban online scene. On the other hand, he “came out” in 2011 as a spy (in an interview with Cuban super-blogger Yoani Sanchez), part of Operación Verdad, a government project that encouraged the online harassment of independent bloggers in online media. He’s subsequently been “reborn” as a dissident, demanding a new, competitive political party to challenge the state. Figuring out who’s on what side, who is supported by whom and whose politics are genuine or performative is part of understanding this complex space.

Fusco offers a brief timeline of the internet in Cuba, starting with the arrival of internet service in 1996. This service was expensive and out of reach of most ordinary Cubans, so internet usage didn’t really come into play until the middle of the next decade. The “black spring” of 2003, where 75 journalists and human rights activists were imprisoned for their offline media activities heled step the stage for Cuba’s internet transformation. In 2006 when Fidel stepped down and Raúl took over power, many expected the political environment to open up somewhat. But it took “the Pavon case”, the online debate about the rehabilitation of a former government censor and extremist, to demonstrate the utility of online spaces as a place for political discussion. These dialogs took place via email, the medium most accessible to the few Cubans who were online at that time.

Shortly afterwards, Yoani Sanchez’s Generation Y blog opened this new space to a younger generation. Shortly after, in 2008, bloggers began meeting in public, weekly, to discuss both political issues and the challenges o being online in Cuba. At the same time, restrictions were lifted on cellphone ownership, opening a new channel to online participation for the majority of Cubans who did not have access to an internet connected computer. By 2009, Sanchez and her husband had founded Blogger Academy, which trains bloggers in how to use key social media tools. The Taza de Café blog, started by Lizabel Monica, launched with technical advice about accessing internet services using Cuba’s slow internet. And in a validation of blogger influence, the Cuban government responded by launching a set of government-sponsored blogs to counter the independent ones. These blogs now outnumber independent blogs by 2:1, but have a much lower reach and readership.

Like many closed societies, Cuba has a complicated love/hate relationship with the internet. Access to the net in increasing – there are now about 1.5 million cellphones in Cuba for a population of 10-11 million, so mobile access has outpaced access to land lines, with teledensity at about 10%. Fusco estimates that roughly 25% of Cubans have internet access, but notes that there’s no way to measure that decisively, as Cubans use wifi from hotels, rent internet access from foreign workers and use any number of creative methods to get online.

The Cuban government tends to see the internet as a threat to national security, and especially as a tool for the US State department to engage in pro-democracy propaganda. Thus the Cuban internet is controlled via site censorship, through the criminalization of some kinds of communication and through limitations to online access. Officially, email in Cuba is through an in-country system, where you need to be a union member or university student to have access. The mobile phone company, Cubacel, is a monopoly, controlled by ETECSA, the national telephone company. Access is slow, and costs are extremely high. Access through a hotel costs $6 an hour, and $4.50 an hour at internet cafes. In a country where the average salary is $20/month, there’s not a ton of usage through those channels. More common is access through the mobile phones, where charges are $1 per SMS message and $0.45 a minute for a domestic phone call. Fortunately, diasporans and other supporters of Cuban bloggers are able to send phones into the country and top up mobile phone accounts remotely. (Most Cuban bloggers have a “donate” button on their blog, which solicits funds for cellphone airtime.) The $2 billion in remittances into Cuba annually are what makes citizen media on the Cuban internet possible.

Even when Cubans can afford to get online, they face substantial technical challenges. Email is really the online reliable service in Cuba, so posting to blogs, Facebook and Twitter happens primarily through email – the best bloggers have setups that trigger tweets and Facebook updates as soon as they publish new content. Cubans have grown used to a culture of surveillance, in which journalism is pre-approved, where sites critical of the government are censored, and where surveillance of phone calls and email is routine. Still, even in such a controlled environment, some information spreads relatively freely.

Fusco explains that most Cubans don’t want clandestine political media so much as they want games, music and movies. They get these through the “paquete”, the colloquial term for a package of digital media delivered on USB flash drives. These drives are assembled by diasporans and often include political news from TV Martí, as well as entertainment media. The keys sell for roughly 2 CUC (the Cuban convertible peso, which trades for roughly $1 – it’s a parallel currency to the Cuban peso, for use in foreign transactions, by tourists and others.) Since games often circulate on these keys, it’s become a popular business to run gaming parlors for $1 an hour. While wholly political paquetes do circulate, the ones that mix political and entertainment content seem to have the best success. (I see parallels to work friends have done circulating CDs with political content in Zimbabwe, to be played on buses and in taxis. A mix that’s 2/3rd to 3/4s music, with 1/3-1/4 political content seems to work, while all politics tends not to get well circulated.)

The paquete is not the only way Cubans are hacking digital media, Fusco tells us. Used phones and smartphones need to be modified for use in Cuba. Anyone licensed to do phone repairs will employ someone – often a small team – to alter these imported phones. There’s also a business in modifying Nintendos and Playstations for domestic use. All software used in Cuba tends to be pirated, and some software – particularly mobile phone applications that depend on network access – need to be modified to work mostly offline. There’s a thriving online market for these products – revolico.com – which Fusco describes as “the illegal Cuban craigslist”.

Those Cubans who are able to get online are often engaged in independent blogging and citizen journalism. Generación Y, founded by Sanchez, is now translated by volunteers into 14 languages (leading to accusations that she obviously must be a US spy, as volunteers obviously couldn’t be counted on to translate a website into dozens of languages…) Sanchez also maintains Voces Cubanas, a group blog representing the broader Cuban dissident blogophere. Havana Times is edited in Nicaragua, but features writing from people on the Island and is regularly translated into English. In addition to technical advice from La Taza De Café, Cuban bloggers can seek legal advice from Cuban Legal Advisor, run by Laritza Diversent, who tracks changing media and propaganda laws closely and offers advice for dissidents on jail and detentions.

That this community survives is something of a miracle, as blogging began as the process of sending SMS messages to friends and asking them to post to websites. Called “blind blogging”, this was replaced by using sites like Blogger, Twitter and YouTube via email. Yoani Sanchez showed Cubans how to use MMS to send data-rich short messages, which Fusco argues led to a major change in US journalistic coverage of Cuba. Still, these journalists and activists face a daunting set of challenges, starting with the difficulties of building a local base, given the cost of accessing the Internet. There are draconian legal restrictions if you are found of publishing with US government involvement, and the online space is deeply dependent on US pro-democracy funding. Fusco explains the debates that occur in Cuba – is blogging a “mercenary activity” funded by an imperialist government, or is this autonomous action by Cuban bloggers, who need money to support this work.

In addition, bloggers are isolated geographically and politically, and rarely have the opportunity to collaborate with others facing similar situations. State security has proven itself effective in fomenting discord between opposition groups. And these groups and bloggers tend to have narrowly focused agendas that can make it hard for them to reach international audiences even when they are technically able.

Fusco offers a bit more hope to Cubans using digital media to shape culture through literature, music and film. Projects like the Voces literary magazine are providing an alternative space for artists who don’t have official recognition from artists and writers union. (This official recognition matters – it is difficult to travel without this official status.) Artists have taken to keeping online video diaries to document their work and their process, hoping this will serve as a “shield” if they are detained or arrested and a rallying point for their supporters. Even given tight restrictions on content, some controversial material, especially films, are making the rounds of global film festivals, including films like Monte Rouge (about a security official visiting the house of an intellectual) and Los Aldeanos (link en español) (a documentary about Cuba’s hip hop underground). Cuban music is making an impact as well – Porno Para Ricardo, fronted by enfant terrible Gorki Aguila, survives and has visibility globally despite four (likely politically motivated) drug arrests of Aguila.


El Comandante, by Porno Para Ricardo

Fusco’s talk ends with discussion of the uncomfortable and complex relationship between Cuban media and audiences abroad. Blog dailies are published in Havana, Miami and Madrid. These sites, which feature writing from Cubans on the island, serve as what should be the opposition press, and are widely quoted by wire services and other international news agencies. They also serve as fodder for TV and Radio Martí, the American-produced channels that seek to reach Cubans on the island and in the diaspora. Martí was funded in the wake of the 1996 Helms-Burton acts tightening US trade embargo against Cuba (a reaction to Cuba shooting down “Brothers to the Rescue” planes that sought to rescue Cuban refugees on rafts), and now the US government provides massive funding to pro-democracy media in Cuba.

This funding has supported people like Alan Gross, a contractor for USAID, who made five trips to Cuba bringing in phones and, perhaps, equipment designed to disguise satellite phone calls. Gross was arrested in 2011 and his family worries he will die in Cuban prison during his 15 year sentence. While Gross’s case has drawn international attention, Fusco notes that Cuban bloggers who accept US support – sometimes unknowingly – risk similar sentences.

She is hopeful that the $2 billion in remittance money send to Cuba might have more of an impact than the $70 million allocated to USAID, much of which is spent in the US. Projects like ZunZuneo, secretly created by USAID contractors to be the “Cuban Twitter” are far less interesting that projects like Yagruma, which supported creative projects in Cuba through a Kickstarter model before being stopped by the Treasury department in 2013, or Roots of Hope, organized by Cuban Harvard students, which coordinates tech donations to Cuban citizens.

Two interesting points came up in discussion with the Center for Civic Media team. Dalia Othman, an expert on social media in Palestine, noted that the Arabic blogopshere has moved almost entirely onto newer social media platforms. This shift hasn’t happened in Cuba, Fusco believes, because time moves differently on the Cuban internet. “It takes four hours to get to work, so why would you blog everyday? There’s no sense for the tactical use of brevity.” And because Cuba’s internet access is so slow, the always on world of social media doesn’t make much sense to Cuban users.

I asked Fusco what she would advise Secretary of State Kerry to do regarding independent media in Cuba. Her main point was that Cubans are far smarter about what works in Cuba than US contractors. Acknowledging that it’s dangerous for the US to fund Cubans directly, she’d like to see more diverse and less polarized funding for media in Cuba. At the same time, it’s important to question some of the Florida-based expatriate organizations, which have historically been sponsoring violent opposition and are now sponsoring technology. Critically, she thinks Cubans need to get beyond the idea that US support for independent media is a “mercenary” activity – independent journalism should not be seen as mercenary, or as a US demand. Instead, it’s a demand for a functional society.

Categories: Blog

Williams Convocation Address: “Bibliolarceny and the Size of the Universe”

September 21, 2014 - 4:47am

My alma mater, Williams College, begins the academic year with a convocation, a ceremony for seniors, faculty and a small number of alumni who are being honored with the college’s Bicentennial medal, an award for “distinguished achievement in any field of endeavor”. I was honored to be one of those medal recipients this year, and the college asked me to address the students. My remarks follow below.

If the job of a commencement address is to offer students thoughts on how to exit college and enter the world, a convocation address can urge students to make the best of their remaining time in college. I wanted to try to connect my time at Williams more than twenty years ago to my professional life, to talk about the college’s new library and connect the year’s academic theme – The Book, Unbound – to my own work.

I’m posting the speech here at the request of a few faculty and students who were kind enough to ask. It may not make a ton of sense to my regular readers, who don’t know about the rivalry between Williams and Amherst, two fine colleges in Western Massachusetts that have lots of similarities and a long-standing rivalry. I’m not above playing to the hometown crowd, so most of the laugh lines here are digs at Amherst and Lord Jeffrey Amherst, British Army commander and all-around nasty piece of work.

I’m honored and thrilled to be with you today for the Williams 2014 Convocation, for the dedication of the extraordinary and beautiful new Sawyer Library, and for this year’s conversation about “The Book, Unbound”. Given the circumstances, I’ve been thinking back to one of my favorite Williams origin stories. You know it, I’m sure: how in September 1821, Zephaniah Swift Moore, the second President of Williams College, skulked out of town in the dead of night, leaving the wilderness of western Massachusetts to build Amherst in the tamer lands of the Pioneer Valley, taking with him not only 15 students but key volumes from the Williams College library.

It’s a fantastic story, just the sort of thing to justify our centuries-old rivalry with our neighbors to the east. Unfortunately, it’s not true. Yes, President Moore left, and yes, fifteen students left with him. And there’s a lack of clarity about where the 700 books that constituted Amherst’s original library came from. But there’s no evidence that Amherst’s library was seeded with purloined volumes, only records of votes by student societies not to move libraries along with the students who left the college.

It’s possible the story began as an excuse for the poor quality of the Williams library in the 1800s. In 1821, the library wouldn’t have been that hard to steal – at that point, Williams had two buildings, two professors, two tutors and 1400 volumes, ot a huge expansion from the school’s original library, 360 volumes in a bookcase in West College. And students complained bitterly of the quality of those books, most of which were dusty theological texts – if you wanted to read non religious literature at Williams for much of 1800s, you would do better to turn to student-run literary and scientific societies.

It’s likely that the legend is much more recent, probably forming in early 1960s. In an essay about the legend, Dustin Griffin points out that early histories of the college discuss President Moore’s departure and rivalries with Amherst, but not the story of the books, and that the story of the books wasn’t one his contemporaries knew in the early 1960s. But by the mid 1960s, there’s record of John Chandler, then dean of the faculty, visiting Amherst’s new library in 1965 cracking a joke about coming to take our books back. When I was here in the early 1990s, the theft of Williams’s library was presented as fact, a simple explanation for the inherent moral superiority of our institution over our rival… which was helpful, as many of us had applied to Amherst as well and needed solid grounding for our contempt.

So we have a myth that’s fairly recent, but which has some powerful explanatory properties and enduring power. It’s worth picking at the myth and asking what it says about us as a culture that this is one of our origin stories, an explanation for our place in the world.

When I’ve heard the story, the theft of the books is always presented as the final straw: Yes, Amherst took our president and took our students. But can you believe they had the nerve to take our books! Bibliolarceny is somehow a more serious crime than other forms of theft – not, perhaps, as serious as proposing the extermination of native Americans with smallpox blankets, but worthy of special consideration nevertheless.

Books have a special, symbolic meaning in our culture. The burning of books – whether by the Mongols when they sacked Baghdad in the 9th century, the burning of “degenerate texts” by the Nazis in the 1930s or American extremists burning the Quran today – isn’t just about the destruction of an object. It’s the symbolic destruction of a people, a culture and a way of thinking. Whether we’re banning books from library shelves, burning them or stealing them, we’re talking about shrinking the universe of cultural possibilities, limiting the number of different ways we can look at the world through the eyes of the authors.

I think that’s why this story has special significance in the context of a college. Even before 1965, when this story gained its currency, college was a place to expand your worldview. The process of packing up, leaving your hometown and going to live with a new set of people is constructed not just to give you access to a different set of teachers, but to a different and broader set of friends and influences. In 1965, when this myth took root, colleges themselves were shifting. In 1964, the civil rights act mandated access to public schools for African Americans and for women. Williams became coeducational in 1970. When this myth arose, we were right on the cusp of the college experience changing: from one which exposed students to a world of mostly white men, to one which served as a bridge to a much wider, multicultural international world. Against that backdrop of the widening world, we have a story about part of a college’s community giving up, finding the challenge of building a community out in the wilds to be too difficult, and shrinking the horizons of those who stayed by taking their books.

One of the reasons I wanted to think about this story is that I wonder whether it has as much currency now as it did in the 60s, or even in the 90s. We’re at a very different moment in our relationship with books, our relationship with information, than we were even twenty years ago. The story of the stolen books is a story from the days of scarce information. Now most of us feel like we’re inundated with information, possibly drowning in it. How do we think about losing part of our library when we have an apparent infinity of information online?

I published a book last summer, Rewire, that looked at the question of how having access to an abundance of global information is changing what we know about the world. I had been a cyberutopian, someone who believed that the internet was going to make the world a smaller, more connected and more understanding place. This seemed pretty obvious to me – it used to be really hard to get news from Sub Saharan Africa or Central Asia – now you can read a Nigerian newspaper online or make a Skype call to Kazakhstan.

But a strange thing has happened as we’ve gotten access to more information from around the world – most of us are choosing to encounter less of it. We have to make thousands of decisions a day about whether we read a story about Ebola, a tweet from Ferguson, or a Facebook update from a high school classmate. In aggregate, most of us are getting much less international news than we did in an era of the daily newspaper and three television stations.

When we’re faced with a wealth of choices, we tend to opt for the familiar, for what we already know to be important. It’s a basic human tendency to pay more attention to members of “our tribe” than people we’ve never met and don’t have a reason to care about. This was a fine coping strategy for a world of disconnected villages, the world almost everyone lived in 500 years ago, but it’s deeply maladaptive for the connected world we live in today. We may not know anyone in Liberia, but it’s a pretty short plane flight from Monrovia to New York – problems that were distant have a way of become our problems very quickly.

Much of my work at MIT looks at questions of how we maintain a broad view of the world when we’re faced with an avalanche of information. It’s directly parallel to the problems librarians have today now that the problem isn’t expanding from 360 volumes to 1400 – the problem is engineering serendipity. It’s making the library – or, in my case, the internet – both a place where you can take a deep dive into a subject you care about, and also a place where you can discover something unexpected and life changing.

One of the things I’ve learned in my research is that it’s much easier to pay attention to people than to places. If there’s someone you care about who’s from Haiti, if you’ve had the chance to travel there and meet people from Haiti, you’ll watch the news differently. You’ll have a connection to that place, a context for a story you hear. The events will be more real to you because Haiti is more real to you through the people you know there.

For ten years, I’ve been helping run a website called Global Voices, which uses citizen media – blogposts, YouTube videos, tweets – to bring readers news from around the globe. The reason we use citizen media is that it gives you a connection to ordinary people writing online as well as to the events they’re describing. For our readers and our community, the Arab Spring wasn’t just the story about a political upheaval – it was the story of our friends who were in the streets, in and out of prison and then in and out of the new governments.

I started working on Global Voices because I wanted to read more news about sub-Saharan Africa in the newspaper. That’s because I spent five years in Ghana helping Ghanaians build internet service providers and other technology businesses. And I started doing that because I spent a year in Ghana on a Fulbright grant studying xylophone music. What got me interested in that was Sandra Burton, who I believe should be considered a national treasure as well as one of our colleges’ greatest heroes. Along with Gary Sojkowski and the late Ernest Brown, Sandra founded Kusika, the African dance ensemble, which was the center of my community when I was at Williams. The strange and wonderful path my life has taken, from starting an early web company to building internet businesses in Africa to working with media activists and journalists around the world, to teaching at MIT leads directly back to the dance studio and to the computer labs, to the professors and students who were passionate about a world wide enough to include both Africa and the internet.

The next time you visit Sawyer Library, I’d ask you to think about the ways in which it’s carefully curated, designed to make it possible to get lost productively, to discover something unexpected but wonderful. Possibly the only thing at Williams more carefully curated is the class you are a part of. We’ve got an almost infinite capacity to put information on shelves physically or virtually, but the opportunity to be in this place, with these people for four years is decidedly finite. I’m grateful for the effort that went into giving me a universe of a couple thousands people who challenged me and invited me to discover new ways of looking at the world.

This is something the college does very consciously, for the simple reason that who we know is going to help determine who we are. I don’t mean this in the narrow sense that, if the person sitting next to you founds the next Facebook, maybe you’ll get some stock options. I mean it in a much broader sense: that who you know, who you care about tends to determine how you view the world, what you pay attention to, and ultimately will shape your path through the world.

Like the library, like the internet, the class of 2015 is too big to know. But if the challenge of a really great library is not just to explore what you already know, what you already care about, the challenge is the same, to challenge yourself to expand your picture of the world by expanding who you know and who and what you care about.

Here’s what Zephiniah Swift Moore took from Williams when he left for Amherst: he took 15 students, 20% of the student body. We can think of those mythical stolen books as shrinking the universe, what we could learn from those volumes. But we should think of losing those students in the same way, as losing the opportunity to see the world through a different set of eyes.

We’re always going to have to make choices about who we know, what we read, what we care about. We never get to read every book, even when there are only 360 on the shelves, and we’re never going to know the people around us as well as they deserve to be known. But we can make decisions to choose a wider world. In ways I never expected, Williams launched me into a world that’s wider than I had imagined. I am eternally grateful for this and I hope the same for you.

Writing this address was a great chance to read up on the early history of Williams and its library. Here are some of the sources I benefited from:

Dustin Griffin (Williams ’65) wrote a terrific essay, “The Theft of the Williams Library”, which I drew from heavily. I’m especially grateful to Griffin for the term “bibliolarceny”.

Steve Satullo (Williams ’69) has been researching the history of Williams libraries as the college has built and moved Sawyer library. His essays have been very helpful for understanding the early days of the Williams library and its shortcomings.

In understanding the state of Williams College and the reasons Zephaniah Swift Moore and others believed it was important to move Williams from the wilderness toward the more settled Pioneer Valley, the 1895 “A History of Amherst College” by William S. Tyler is very helpful.

Categories: Blog

A public apology – on screwing up by not questioning assumptions – my talk at #BIF10

September 17, 2014 - 8:41am

I spoke this morning at the tenth incarnation of BIF, Business Innovation Factory, an annual conference in Providence, RI that focuses on storytelling. It’s got a lot less product promotion and self-celebration than many conferences on innovation, and more personal stories, which is why I always enjoy attending. So I thought I’d share a personal story that I’m still digesting and the questions it raises for me. If it reads a little differently from most of my writing, the context helps explain why.

About a month ago, I wrote an article about a simple idea. I asked whether anyone really believed that advertising should be the main way we supported content and services on the internet. Given how poorly banner advertising on the web worksGiven that nobody likes banner ads, and given that the current system puts users under surveillance, which in turn seems to inure us to government surveillance, I wondered whether there might be a better way.

Initially, the piece did what I hoped for – it sparked a lively conversation about business models for the web, particularly about business models for news. My friend Jeff Jarvis, whose faith in Google inspires envy in leaders of the Catholic Church, reassured me that once advertising got a little better, I’d like the ads I was reading online, really! I heard pitches for ethical advertising, for different approaches to subscriptions and to micropayments. I’d gotten something off my chest, had sparked a good conversation and was learning from the responses. As a blogger and a media scholar, life was good.

But something unexpected happened halfway through my day in the sun. For a brief and uncomfortable time, I became the most hated man on the internet. Here’s how that happened.

In writing about advertising, I wanted to talk about mistakes we’d made collectively, as an industry, not just beat up on Mark Zuckerberg or any other individual. So I took responsibility for my own small contribution to making the world an ugly, ad-filled place. I admitted, somewhat sheepishly, that almost twenty year ago, I invented the pop-up ad.

My intentions were good. (Please stop throwing things at the stage.) I was part of the team that started Tripod.com, an early webpage hosting company. My popup put an ad in a separate window from a user’s webpage, which was a way of distancing an advertiser from user generated content, reassuring advertisers that they wouldn’t actually be on the same page as a paranoid essay about government conspiracies or a collection of nude images. I thought it was a pretty good solution. I’m really, really sorry.

My editor at the Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance, is a lot smarter about her readers I am. She knew that this admission, which I hid as a parenthetical comment, would be far more interesting to most readers than a 3000 word essay on advertising and a culture of surveillance. She did a brief interview with me about the process of creating the ad and wrote a 300 word story titled “The First Pop Up Ad”

">And then things got weird.
Yes, that’s Jimmy Fallon and Conan O’Brien making fun of me. And yes, that’s one of the strangest things that’s ever happened tome.

Adrienne’s Atlantic piece, lightly rewritten, appeared in about forty news outlets over the next 24 hours. I got loads of interview requests and I did one of them before realizing that this was a very bad idea, and that even normally staid news outlets like the BBC would be far more interested in my “confession” than in the broader argument about advertising and surveillance. And then the emails and the tweets started to come in, first cursing me out in English, and then in Turkish, Portuguese, Chinese and Croatian as the story spread globally.

Andy Warhol predicted that, in the future, we would all be famous for 15 minutes. There’s another possibility: on the internet, we will all be intensely loathed for about 15 seconds.

Let me just pause for a moment and mention that my no good, very bad day on the internet is approximately equivalent to what many of my friends refer to as “Friday”. Which is to say, if you are an opinionated woman who writes online, you likely face ugly, misogynistic bullshit on a daily basis significantly more acute that the tongue in cheek death threats I received once this story took off. I don’t in any way mean to compare the mild abuse I faced at a moment of extreme visibility to the sorts or routine, everyday harassment many smart women face for merely expressing themselves online.

That said, I do now understand why someone would choose to go offline rather than wallow in hostility. I ended up taking a week entirely offline while things blew over, until only one in five emails was a death threat.

Of all the tweets hoping for my swift and painful demise, I was particularly struck by one written by a user in southeast Asia, whose tweet read, more or less: “@ethanz I do not accept your apology. This is your Frankenstein monster. You made it, you should kill it.”

I really liked this tweet. There’s something refreshingly simple about the idea that someone – one guy – could be responsible for things in the world that are badly broken. And once we find that guy, we can either string him up or demand that he fix it. It’s the inverse of the great man theory of history, where we declare Edison the great man who commercialized electricity and brought about the modern world, cutting out Tesla, Westinghouse and hundreds of others. This is the rat bastard theory of history, where if only that one SOB hadn’t put pop up ads on user homepages, the world would be a slightly pleasanter place.

The rat bastard theory is helpful because it gives you a single, concrete individual to hate. Back in my darkest, saddest days, when I used to use Windows, I really enjoyed hating Bill Gates, despite the fact that my anger was clearly misplaced. It’s clear that there were all sorts of design decisions that made Windows agonizing to use in the late 1990s, not an evil plan from Bill Gates, who has turned out to be a pretty terrific guy. But it’s a lot easier to see the rat bastard than to see the whole problem.

The problem with the internet in the late 1990s is that we wanted it to be available to everybody in the world. That’s partially because it seemed like the fair thing to do, and partially because we genuinely loved the web and wanted to evangelize for it globally. But most people didn’t know why the web was cool, why they’d want to build a homepage or send status updates to friends, so they weren’t about to pay us to use it. And so we ended up with the only business model we could think of – broadcast advertising. You’ll get our services for free, and we’ll demand some of your attention to sell to advertisers in exchange. Basically, we didn’t know how to pay for the internet for everyone, so we decided to make the internet work the way broadcast television worked.

We had a failure of imagination. And the millions of smart young programmers and businesspeople spending their lives trying to get us to click on ads are also failing to imagine something better. We’re all starting from the same assumptions: everything on the internet is free, we pay with our attention, and our attention is worth more if advertisers know more about who we are and what we do, we start business with money from venture capitalists who need businesses to grow explosively if they’re going to make money.

But there are people imagining something very different. Maceij Ceglowski, whose brilliant talk got me thinking about the broken state of the web, has built a bookmarking service called that’s really cheap – about $5 – but not free. He did it because he imagined something different, not a site to sell to another company, but a service he wanted to have available to the world that’s been profitable since the day he started it. WhatsApp is a wildly popular messaging service that charges users $0.99 a year, and had over 400 million users before Facebook bought it, an amazing example that people are willing to pay for tools they need and use. I just learned about a social network called Connect Fireside that’s designed for the mobile phone and optimized for sharing photos with your family and close friends, not with the whole world. It’s not cheap – it’s $20 a month right now – and who knows if it will survive, but it’s exciting to see someone build something based on a different set of assumptions.

Once you get rid of those assumptions – everything is free, the user is the product being sold to advertisers, and the goal is to be a venture-backed billion dollar business – and lots of things are possible. My friends in Kenya got sick of losing internet connectivity every time the power went off, so they went onto Kickstarter and funded BRCK, which is a portable internet router for the developing world that relies on the mobile phone network. The people who paid for it were people who wanted and needed the device, so were willing to pay for it to be built – crowdfunding, as a model, asks that you give up the assumption that people have to instantly receive the things they buy. Turns out that sometimes we’re willing to pay for something in the hope that it might come to pass, someday.

Turns out we’re also willing to pay for things because we love them and we want them to exist. I’ve become a massive fan of a deeply strange podcast called Welcome to Night Vale, which might be described as a cross between A Prairie Home Companion and the Twilight Zone. The podcast is free, but listeners are encouraged to donate $5 a month, and many do… Many more come to live shows, buy tickets and merchandise, which has allowed the creators to expand the podcast, bringing in new actors and musicians, launch a 16 city tour of Europe and write a book about the Night Vale universe. Putting something beautiful and strange out into the world and hoping people will love it is not the most reliable business model, but it sometimes turns out to be viable.

Remember my friend on Twitter who wanted me to kill Frankenstein’s monster? He got part of it wrong in assuming that I’m the rat bastard solely responsible for the situation we’re in today. But he got part of it right. He’s right that people like me can and should be trying to fix things.

The things that are broken about the internet today – and there are a lot of them – are the product of design decisions that fallible, mortal human beings have made over the past twenty years. Twenty years is not a long time. I have t-shirts older than the world wide web. The web wasn’t built by enlightened geniuses whose trains of thought we could never comprehend – it was built by idiots like me, doing the best we could at the time. It’s possible to look at every technical and design decision that’s led to where we are today and make different choices than the people who made those bad choices.

There’s a lot of things I don’t like about how the web works today. I don’t like that our attention is constantly for sale. I don’t like that public sharing is the default. I don’t like that the web never forgets. I think the always on, inescapable nature of the web is proving really exhausting for us as human beings. And I’m scared that the new public spaces, the places where we come together to debate the future, are owned and controlled by a few massive companies that have enormous potential power over what we’re able to discuss online.

But the mistake would be to assume that these shortcomings are inevitable, that they are simply natural consequences of how people interact online. The mistake is to stop questioning the assumptions about how the world worlds, to stop imagining ways things could be different and better.

I should probably mention that this is not a talk about internet business models.
Actually, it’s a talk about civics.

If you think the web is broken – and I do – you should take a look at American democracy. Here’s another case where fallible humans made design decisions that seemed like a good idea at the time and now have had some clearly disastrous consequences. Sure, having professional representatives deliberate together and govern a nation is a pretty cool hack when the dominant governance technology of the time is feudalism. One person, one vote elections – once we finally got around to fully implementing it? Cool idea. Freedom of speech for individuals as well as organizations? Seems pretty important for the rest of the system to work.

Put these things together and we’ve somehow ended up with a system where the Democratic Congressional Committee recommends to new congresspeople that they spend 4-5 hours a day raising money, and only 3-4 hours meeting with constituents or working to craft legislation. It’s a system that constituents hate – it’s part of the reason Congress has a single-digit approval rating – and Congresspeople hate, too, which is why some incumbents are choosing to leave office. But it’s not hard to figure out how it happened, to trace the decisions that brought us to a deeply undesirable place. We can invoke the rat bastard theory and blame Chief Justice John Roberts for Citizens United decision, but we’re following the same fallacy – this is a failure of imagination, not the failure of any one person (or even five supreme court justices)

It’s possible to imagine something very different. Larry Lessig is working very hard to bring a new model to life, where every voter gets $50 of government funds to give to politicians who can use the money to campaign. To imagine that model, you have to give up a bunch of assumptions: that you have a right to spend money to influence politics; that governments should try to do less, not more. And you have to be ready to cope with all the unintended consequences of the new system as well, of people selling their government funds to politicians through brokers, of social media becoming an endless campaign battle ground.

We need a ton more of this, people questioning assumptions that representation makes more sense than direct democracy, that decisions at the federal level are more important than those locally, that money is convertible into power. We need lots of Lessigs taking on these sorts of imaginative experiments, because most of them are going to fail.

Here are two really big assumptions I want to question:
- that participating in representative democracy is the core act of what it means to be a good citizen
- and that everyone is going to participate in our democracy in more or less the same way

You know what it means to be a good citizen – you’re supposed to read the newspaper and keep up on events locally and globally, and vote every two years and maybe call your congressman if something really pisses you off. And you probably know that this isn’t going to make very much of a difference. And that your congressperson is heading into a paralyzed institution that’s rarely able to pass legislation.

So let’s question the assumption that fixing Congress – or even more ambitiously, fixing politics – is the most important part of fixing citizenship. In the 50s and 60s, people figured out that, when you’re prevented from voting by law, public protests – marches, sit ins, boycotts – are a critical part of citizenship. As Congress starting passing civil rights legislation, activists learned that lawsuits were a critical tool to ensure that laws applied to everyone and enforced fairly. We rarely think of suing the government as a way to be a good citizen, but it’s been critical in building the rights-based society we have today.

There are at least three ways I think people can be civically active even if they’re frustrated with paralysis in politics. Make media. When people saw tanks in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri to counter peaceful protests, they made media and started a conversation about the militarization of America’s police forces. When they saw a newspaper picture of Michael Brown looking threatening, they started tweeting #iftheyshotmedown, asking whether the media were being fair in their choice of picture to portray the victim of a police shooting. Media is how we understand the world, and we can shape our public conversation by building civic media.

Make new things. I’m deeply frustrated that my government is surveilling my communications and those of millions of others worldwide, and I’m angry that so little legislative action has been taken in the wake of Ed Snowden’s revelations. But I’m really happy that software developers like Tor, Mailpile, Redphone and Mailvelope are working to make it easy to encrypt email and phonecalls and make it harder for anyone to surveil our communications. Make businesses. I’m concerned about climate change, I want to see a carbon tax, but in the meantime, I’m excited to see Tesla making electric cars that are sexy and for people as broke as me, excited that I drove here in a diesel car that gets almost fifty miles to the gallon. Building businesses that do well while doing good is one of the most powerful ways we can engage in civics today.

Here’s what’s tricky about expanding civics to include making media, making code and making money: it’s not a level playing field. Voting is something everyone can do – right now, making code or making media is easier for some people than others. We’re going to need to think hard about how we prepare the next generation of citizens for a world where their power comes not just from voting but from making, and where someone’s civics unfolds in the marketplace while someone else’s unfolds in Congress.

If you want to overcome failures of imagination – accepting that the web or our politics are inescapably broken – you’ve got to try something new. You’re probably going to fail. And when you do, I recommend that you try again. But first I recommend that you apologize. It feels really good. I’m sorry, and thank you for listening.

Categories: Blog

Self-segregation on social networks and the implications for the Ferguson, MO story

August 27, 2014 - 11:48am

Michael Brown was fatally shot by police officer Darren Wilson on Saturday August 9, 2014. After his body lay in the hot street for four hours, Ferguson residents took to the streets to protest his killing. Brown’s death, the ensuing protest and the militarized police response opened a debate about race, justice and policing in America that continues today.

I heard about Michael Brown’s death for the first time on the evening of the 9th, through Twitter. Sarah Kendzior, a St. Louis-based journalist, was retweeting accounts of the protest, and other Twitter friends who write about racial justice issues, including Sherrilyn Ifill, the director of NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, were discussing the implications of Brown’s killing and the community and police response. I wrote a quick blog post, noting how little mainstream media response there had been at that point, and how much of the coverage had focused on the anger of the crowd, which one outlet termed “a mob”. At that early point, there was not a dedicated Wikipedia article focused on Brown’s death, nor had major national newspapers, like the New York Times, written about Brown. For many people outside of the reach of local St. Louis media, Twitter was the medium that introduced people to the city of Ferguson.

The Pew Research Center confirms this picture. In a thorough analysis of early media coverage of the events in Ferguson, Paul Hitlin and Nancy Vogt of Pew note that cable news didn’t report the story until Monday the 11th, two days after the shooting. Cable news attention peaked on Thursday, August 14, after Ferguson police arrested two reporters and President Obama interrupted his vacation to report on the situation. Twitter attention peaked at the same time, with 3.6 million Ferguson-related tweets on the 14th, but it’s worth noting that Twitter showed a steady and growing interest in the topic from Saturday the 9th onward.

This pattern of attention to Michael Brown’s killing contrasts sharply with early attention to the killing of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman on February 26, 2012. My students Erhardt Graeff, Matt Stempeck and I studied media coverage of the Martin killing using our Media Cloud tools and found that they key factor in expanding the conversation about Martin’s death beyond Central Florida was a careful PR campaign orchestrated by Benjamin Crump, an attorney retained by Martin’s parents. These PR efforts led to national television coverage of the story, which in turn led to a surge of interest on Twitter and in other participatory media.

In the case of Michael Brown, over 140,000 Twitter posts mentioned Ferguson on August 9th, the day of the shooting. Twitter led other media in 2014, while broadcast media led in 2012. When Crump announced he would be representing the family of Michael Brown on August 11, two days after the shooting, there was no need for a PR campaign, as the story of Brown’s death was already gaining traction in the media.

Pew’s analysis of Michael Brown versus Trayvon Martin shows that attention to events in Ferguson built more quickly than attention to events in Stanford, FL. There are several reasons for this. The police response to protests added a dimension to the Ferguson story that was not present in discussions of Trayvon Martin – many of the tweets on August 14 focused on the arrest of working journalists and the use of military equipment by Ferguson police. (When Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson took over control of law enforcement response in Ferguson on August 14, ordering officers to remove riot gear, attention on Twitter dropped sharply, suggesting some of the attention was on policing tactics.)

Twitter’s reach has grown since 2012, and the power of “black twitter”, which Soraya Nadia McDonald describes as both “cultural force” and social network, to challenge racist narratives has grown. Outrage on Twitter over a book deal for a juror who acquitted George Zimmerman led to the deal being withdrawn. Noting the power of outraged channeled through a hashtag, some African American Twitter users began posting contrasting photos of themselves under the tag #iftheygunnedmedown, suggesting that media were emphasizing the narrative of Michael Brown as “thug”, by using a photo in which Brown is displaying a peace sign (which many have read as a gang sign), rather than other photos in which Brown looks young and entirely unthreatening. The hashtag allowed Twitter users to participate in the dialog about Ferguson in cases where they had nothing to share about the situation on the ground by participating in a conversation about larger issues of structural racism in American media.

While events in Ferguson received widespread attention on Twitter, some observers saw very different behavior on their Facebook feeds.

Twitter vs. Facebook: my tweetstream is almost wall-to-wall with news from Ferguson. Only two mentions of it in my Facebook news feed.

— Mark_Hamilton (@gmarkham) August 14, 2014

John McDermott, writing in Digiday, offered this elegant formulation: “Facebook is for Ice Buckets, Twitter is for Ferguson”. Using data from SimpleReach, McDermott suggests that there were roughly eight times as many stories about events in Ferguson posted to Facebook as stories about the ALS Ice Bucket challenge, but that the stories received roughly the same exposure on Facebook (approximately 3.5 million Facebook “referrals” – appearances on a Facebook user’s screen – for each story between August 7-20th.) In the same time period, Crimson Hexagon calculated that there were roughly 1.5 times as many tweets about Ferguson as about the Ice Bucket Challenge.

The near-equal attention to Ferguson and the Ice Bucket Challenge that SimpleReach’s numbers suggest hardly seems like the substance of a controversy about algorithmic censorship, but it is worth noting that vastly more stories about Ferguson were posted to Facebook than stories about the Ice Bucket Challenge. The average story about the Ice Bucket Challenge was much more heavily promoted by Facebook’s algorithms (a factor of 8x) than the average story about Ferguson. Sociologist Zeynep Tufekçi suggests that this disparity may have been more significant early in the Ferguson story, which made the disparity between Facebook and Twitter more dramatic.

Tufekci goes on to observe that while Twitter (at present) is a “neutral” provider, simply delivering you tweets from the accounts you’ve chosen to follow, Facebook algorithmically “curates” your feed, offering you a selection of content that it believes you will find most interesting. She points out that this is a serious danger to democratic discourse. Facebook could censor our information flows and it would be difficult for us to determine that such censorship was taking place. The algorithms Facebook uses are opaque, which means conversations about how the algorithm work sound a bit like speculation about divine will. Tufecki suggests that Facebook may have altered their algorithm overnight to give Ferguson stories more prominence, which may be true but is impossible to verify. Others have speculated that Facebook tunes its algorithm to favor “happy news” and discourage serious news. Again, this is possible – and could even reflect lessons learned from Facebook’s mood manipulation experiments – but unverifiable.

Here are some of the things we do know about Facebook, which may explain why news appears differently on different social media platforms.

- It’s hard to search Facebook. When news breaks, Twitter users enter search terms and hashtags and receive an updated stream of tweets on the topic in question. On August 9th, I was able to follow reports from Ferguson and quickly choose Twitter users to follow who appeared to be at or near the scene. On Facebook, searching for “Ferguson” gives you the names of many people named Ferguson who Facebook thinks you might know. (You can, conveniently, choose to “Like” the city of Ferguson, which is probably pretty far from what most people searching for Ferguson want to do.)

- Non-reciprocal following makes it easier to diversify who you follow on Twitter. If I see that St. Louis-based rapper Tef Poe is reporting on Twitter regarding Ferguson, I can follow him, and I will see any public tweets he makes in my timeline. On Facebook, I need the approval of someone to follow their personal feed – they need to confirm our friendship before I can read what they’re saying.

It’s typical on Twitter for people to start following accounts of people they don’t know personally, especially when those people are eyewitnesses to or well-informed commenters on an event. I followed a set of users in Egypt while the Tahrir protests were taking place and stopped following many afterwards – I’ve done the same with Ferguson. This is much more difficult to do on Facebook – the platform is designed to connect you with friends, not sources, and to maintain those friendships over time.

- People have a relatively small number of Facebook friends – the median figure is 200 – and many white American Facebook users likely have few or no African-American Facebook friends. This isn’t a phenomenon specific to Facebook – it’s a broader reflection of American demographics and patterns of homophily, the tendency of “birds of a feather” to flock together. Robert Jones at the Public Religion Research Institute used data from the 2013 American Values Survey to estimate the racial composition of people’s social networks. He projects that the average white American has only one black friend, and that 75% of white Americans have entirely white social networks. (There’s an interesting debate about PRRI’s methodology, with Eugene Volokh arguing that it’s hard to estimate weak social ties by asking people about people they confide in.)

We can build on these numbers to speculate about what might be going on with Facebook and stories about Ferguson. Most people who follow Facebook believe that the company’s algorithm favors stories likely to be shared by a lot of people in your social network – Facebook favors viral cascades over surfacing novel content. If few users in your circle of friends are sharing stories about Ferguson – which is a distinct possibility if you are white and most of your friends are white – Facebook’s algorithm may see this as a story unlikely to “go viral” and tamp it down, rather than amplifying it, as it has with the ALS stories. On the other hand, if many of your friends are sharing the Ferguson story – likely if you have many African-American friends or if you follow racial justice issues – your corner of the Facebook network could be part of a viral cascade.

A new paper from Pew and Rutgers suggests another reason why Ferguson might have had difficulty spreading on Facebook. Keith Hampton and the other authors of the study found that people are acutely attuned to what conversations are happening on social networks and are unlikely to bring up topics perceived to be controversial. The users the authors surveyed were half as likely to bring up controversial topics on Facebook or Twitter as they were in face to face conversations. The exception was when they believed their friends on social networks agreed with their positions, in which case they were more likely to bring up the topic on social networks. In the case of Ferguson, this suggests that a Facebook user, unsure of whether her friends share her opinion that the police overreacted in Ferguson, might be more reluctant to post a Ferguson story on Facebook than she would be to bring up the situation in conversation. If there were a cascade of stories on Ferguson, she would have a social signal that the topic was acceptable and would be more likely to participate. On Twitter, where it’s not uncommon to follow dozens of people you don’t know well, it’s easier to interpret those social signals than on Facebook, where you are more likely to know an ethnically homogenous set of friends.

I’m far from immune to these echo chamber effects. One of my students surprised me with a link to a USA Today article reporting that more money had been raised to support Darren Wilson, the police officer accused of killing Brown than had been raised by Brown’s family. Few of my Facebook or Twitter friends were raising money for Officer Wilson, and so I was surprised to discover that a successful campaign was being held on his behalf. My ignorance of the campaign to support Wilson suggests that I have my own diversity issues in social media – if I want a more nuanced understanding of Americans’ reactions to Ferguson, I need to increase the ideological diversity of the people I follow online.

Special bonus: Jon Stewart takes the Ferguson challenge, which turns out to be utterly unlike the ALS Ice Bucket challenge.

Categories: Blog

News reports on Michael Brown’s death: how do mourners become a “mob”?

August 10, 2014 - 8:15pm

Around noon on Saturday, an 18-year old African American teenager, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by a local police officer in Ferguson, MO, a suburb of St. Louis. Accounts differ as to the events that preceded the shooting. The St. Louis County Police Department has said that Brown and another man struggled with an officer and pushed him back into his squad car, then attempted to seize the officer’s gun; a witness says that a police officer told Brown to walk on the sidewalk instead of the street, grabbed Brown after he exchanged words with the officer and shot the young man, shooting Brown again after the young man had his hands in the air.

After Brown was shot, members of the community gathered to mourn and protest his death. As a crowd gathered, more than 100 police from 15 different departments arrived at the scene. Videos from the scene show peaceful protesters chanting, facing a group of officers and police dogs.

The facts surrounding Brown’s death will be the subject of an investigation, and there are likely to be many accounts of community and police reactions after his death. I have no insights into what actually happened, though I will be watching closely over the next days. However, we do know how news media reported on the events.

The St. Louis Post Dispatch ran a story on the shooting and community response initially headlined “Fatal Shooting by Ferguson police prompt mob reaction”. Perhaps realizing that referring to a group as a “mob” incorrectly connotes violent behavior on part of the protesters, editors revised the headline. The current headline reads “Anger, confrontation after fatal shooting of teen by Ferguson police officer”. The initial title is apparent from the URL of the story: http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/fatal-shooting-by-ferguson-police-prompts-mob-reaction/article_04e3885b-4131-5e49-b784-33cd3acbe7f1.html


A Google News search for “Ferguson” the day after the Michael Brown killing

Other stories about the shooting focused on the crowd reaction. Two stories about an “angry crowd” have had their headlines subsequently edited: ">“Police Confronted by Angry Crowd in Ferguson” has become “Officer-Involved Fatal Shooting in Ferguson”, while “Fatal Shooting by Ferguson Police Draws Angry Crowd” is now “Anger, confrontation after fatal shooting of teen by Ferguson police officer”. (In both cases, we can see the original headline through Google News and through the story URL.) Other stories focused on the crowd have run without changes to their headlines. An AP story on the shooting and response by Alan Scherzaiger ran on numerous websites with the headline “Crowd shouts ‘kill the police’ after cop fatally shoots teen”.

It’s concerning that what makes Michael Brown’s death newsworthy was not the death of an unarmed teen, but the idea of police officers facing off against an “angry crowd”. The “mob” framing suggests that the crowd was violent, as does the widely circulated headline that makes a call for vengeance the key element of the story. Other reports suggest that the chant “No justice, no peace” was misheard or misreported as “kill the police”, or note that reporters heard chants demanding justice, but only second-hand reports of chants of “kill the police”.

It matters whether the people protesting Michael Brown’s death are mourners, activists or part of a mob.

In studying how news gets made, we need to consider both agenda-setting and framing. Agenda-setting is the process through which media, PR people, activists, politicians and other actors work through the question of what gets to be news. When Trayvon Martin was killed, it took several days before national media picked up the story – after a brief burst of local news, there were no reports on Trayvon’s death until his family found a pro-bono PR firm that was able to put the shooting onto the national media agenda.

It seems clear that Michael Brown’s death will be the subject of a national conversation, coming as it does on the heels of the death of Eric Garner in New York City at the hands of the NYPD. What is not yet clear is what frame will dominate media coverage of Brown’s death, what language and concepts we will use to understand . That one of the first frames reached for was that of mob violence suggests something deeply uncomfortable about our reaction to a group of people of color demanding their rights in the face of apparent police violence.

My student Alexandre Gonçalves just wrote a brilliant masters thesis analyzing Brazilian media coverage of a set of protests called “rozelinhos”, literally “little strolls”. In rolezinhos, black and brown youth from low-income neighborhoods showed up en masse in shopping malls to hang out, take photos and shop. To the extent that rolezinhos are protests, they are mostly a way that young people can claim a right to be present in public space. The media reaction to the rolezinhos was striking – journalists explained that the phenomenon was a revival of “arrastão“, or “dragnet”, a form of theft in which gangs of youth surprised beachgoers and robbed them. The “arrastão” framing of rolezinhos lasted until mall owners, fearing a loss of business, took to the press and explained that no one had been robbed in the rolezinjos, as in an arrastão.

In other words, confronted with a new social phenomenon, Brazilian media reached for a frame through which to understand the situation. That they reached for a frame about theft when no theft occurred suggests deep-seated biases around race and age in Brazilian society. When people of color asking for justice initially described as a mob, or an “angry crowd” threatening the police, it tells us something very uncomfortable about the biases in American media.

Gonçalves was able to study the reframing of rolezinhos in Brazilian media because the articles written about arrastão remained online after the framing had changed. (He explains that, after realizing that these protests weren’t thefts, a frame emerged describing Brazil as an apartheid state and the movements as a protest against that apartheid. When it became clear that the protests were taking place in neighborhoods where non-whites were the majority, that frame was also abandoned.) In the case of US media, editors have quickly edited stories to remove the initial “black crowd = mob” framing. That’s probably a good thing, as that framing prompts readers of newspapers to focus on the crowd reaction, not the killing. But the rapid editing of these stories makes it hard to for us to have a conversation about a media portrayal of a community response that reveals more about media bias than about how the citizens of Ferguson, MO reacted to the death of one of their own.

Categories: Blog

The biography I’m waiting for: Bambaataa and the parallel universe of hip hop

August 4, 2014 - 5:38pm

I wrote a book review, of sorts, last week about Walter Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs and my concern that biographies, as a genre, celebrate a “great man” theory of history. While I remain convinced that we need more biographies of teams, of successful collaborations (an idea that Nathan Matias furthers in his post today on acknowledgement and gratitude), I do have a dark secret to admit: I periodically dream about becoming a biographer.

This isn’t because I believe in the biography as a form. It’s because there are people I find so fascinating, I’d enjoy spending a couple of years thinking about how they became who they are or were, and how their personal stories give us a picture of what was possible at different moments in time. I asked a room full of students and colleagues who they’d most like to read a biography of, and the responses were a fascinating picture of my friends as individuals and as part of a group trying to invent the field of civic media.

When the question came around to me, I told the room that I wanted to read the biography of Afrika Bambaataa, one of a few men who can reasonably claim the title “Godfather of Hip Hop”. What I didn’t admit is that I’ve periodically considered dropping my academic pursuits and researching this fascinating figure.

We’re getting to the moment in history where thoughtful popular books are being written about hiphop’s early years and innovators – Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop is extensively researched and thoughtfully written, and Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree has a visual style that recalls the early 1980s better than any text could.


Ed Piskor talks about his Hip Hop Family Tree project

Throughout volume one of Piskor’s beautiful history, Bambaataa recurs as an iconic figure, looming over an interchangeable crowd of short-lived MCs and DJs, as a future-looking visionary. Bambaataa was a leader of the Black Spades gang in the Bronx before deciding to dedicate his formidable charisma and organizing skills towards building the Universal Zulu Nation, a group that was part hip hop music and dance crew and part consciousness-raising Afrocentric cosmopolitan social club. Raised in the Bronx River Projects by his activist mother, he traveled to Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and the Ivory Coast after winning an essay contest run by the New York City housing authority, leading Bambaataa to adopt the identity of an African chieftan, leading his crew of former gangsters into a new artistic life of “peace, love and having fun”.

Throughout the early years of hip hop, Bam was a step ahead of his rivals. Other DJs would look over his shoulder to determine which eclectic selections Bam was using as beats – adopting a trick from DJ Kool Herc, Bam would soak the labels off his records and replace them with labels from unrelated albums, leading rivals to purchase legendarily bad albums in the hopes of replicating his sound. (It’s hard to know whether tales of Bambaataa rocking a party with two copies of the Pink Panther theme are authentic musicology or an unintentional consequence of this tactic.) While other DJs sets had MCs asking the audience their zodiac signs (early hip hop was a direct descendant of disco), Bam was playing Malcolm X speeches over his beats. (I like to think of Keith LeBlanc’s No Sell Out, sometimes cited as the first recording featuring digital samples, as a Bambaataa tribute.) When everyone else followed Bambaataa into the crates, crafting their tracks around James Brown and P-Funk, Bam had moved on sampling Kraftwerk, building “Planet Rock” and inventing the entire genre of Electro.


Planet Rock, 1982

At some point, hip hop stopped following Bambaataa. After about 1986 sampling ruled hip hop, blossoming until it was killed by the Bridgeport Music decision. Electro has influenced every generation of dance music since the early 80s, but you can instantly place any track with rapping and chilly synths as coming from the lost sonic territory of 1982-1985. More tragically, after Bam led gang members out of the streets and into the dance club, Ice-T, BDP and NWA led hip hop out of the clubs and back into the gang life.


“Surgery”, (1984) World Class Wreckin Cru, featuring Dr. Dre. Yes, THAT Dr. Dre. Look it up.

Somewhere there’s a parallel reality in which Afrika Bambaataa is the best known name in hip hop and Dr. Dre is a little-known electro DJ. It’s an alternate dimension where Bambaataa added laser fusion propulsion to P-Funk’s Starship and flew music into orbit around Jupiter rather than having it crash in South Central. In that parallel universe, the Universal Zulu Nation got Angela Davis elected president in 1988 and Bambaataa DJ’d the year-long party to celebrate the intergalactic peace accord of 1999, in which all interpersonal conflicts were put aside towards the shared goals of
peace, unity, love and having fun“.

Instead, Bambaataa has remained an honored and (insufficiently) celebrated hiphop pioneer, best remembered for one unforgettable track than for his epic social hack in the Bronx or his subsequent activism (including Hip Hop Against Apartheid and Artists United Against Apartheid.) Fortunately, the man is starting to get the respect he deserves, from an unusual corner: academe.

In 2012, Cornell University gave Bambaataa a three-year visiting scholar post. Bambaataa responded by donating his legendary record collection to Cornell’s Hip Hop Collection. This has presented an interesting curatorial challenge – the collection contains 40,000 albums, many of them with notes, flyers, press releases or other materials attached, all of which need to be scanned or digitized for posterity. For the past year, archivists have been cataloging the collection, sometimes in public, in Gavin Brown’s gallery in Greenwich Village.


From a slideshow of the Bambaataa collection on Okayplayer

The public archiving project has attracted a raft of contemporary DJs desperate to spin the Godfather’s discs. ">Joakim Bouaziz was one of the lucky DJ’s to be invited to the gallery, and he recorded part of his set spinning his favorites from the collection and recording the experience. No need to kick yourself for missing the gallery show – Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow are touring the US and Canada this fall, spinning the records live as part of their work building a Bambaataa tribute mix.

As for the biography? Bambaataa has been promising an autobiography since the mid-1990s. Let’s hope the revival of interest in his records leads to some helpful pressure on the man to put aside pressing Zulu Nation business for a few weeks and explain to us all What Would Bambaataa Do.

For a taste of what those Bronx parties sounded like in 1982, here’s a collection of live recordings of early Bambaataa sets.

Categories: Blog

How do you write a biography about collaboration?

July 31, 2014 - 12:37pm

A friend recently posted a video on Facebook, a 1997 news story from ABC’s Nightline about Tripod, the social media company I helped build in Williamstown MA from 1994-1999. The video sparked a wave of reactions in me: nostalgia for those past days, pride in the accomplishments of the friends I’ve kept up with, regret for losing touch with others, and bafflement that I would choose to wear flannel and overalls to show off our company to the world. (Perhaps my favorite moment in watching the video was discovering that we’d been interviewed by Deborah Amos, NPR’s Middle East reporter, who has subsequently become a respected friend.)

I’m not proud of all of the emotions that I experienced traveling 17 years into the past. Seeing Bo Peabody, our co-founder and CEO, skateboard into the office and declare that we sold “eyeballs” gave me a wash of anger, envy and frustration that characterized much of my time at the company. Bo playing CEO – something he did splendidly – was often intolerable to me when I was in my twenties, and surprisingly uncomfortable for me to watch in my forties.

Like many companies, Tripod was run by a team of executives who worked closely together – Tripod was somewhat pioneering in that our executives were mostly in their mid-twenties, often working our first serious jobs. (I realize that all promising tech companies now recruit VPs from middle school and issue them standard-order Zuckerberg hoodies in kids sizes, but this was still pretty radical in 1997.) Our company succeeded to the extent it did (never profitable, but sold at a good price for our investors, and still survives as a service almost twenty years later) because we had a small, close-knit team of smart people with complementary skills, (One of those people now directs product design at Facebook. Another became chief marketing officer for Adap.tv and Rubicon, two pioneers in online advertising.)

I saw the team, its strengths and weaknesses as core to Tripod’s success. But whenever a journalist did a news story, it became the story of Bo, the founder, the solitary entrepreneurial genius who’d built our company.

I hated this. I thought it misrepresented our company, disrespected not only the contributions of the management team but the work done by the 60 smart people who built our products and served our users. Hearing me rant about this one too many times, Kara Berklich, our head of marketing pulled me aside and explained that the visionary CEO was a necessary social construct. With Bo as the single protagonist of our corporate story, we were far more marketable than a complex story with half a dozen key figures and a cast of thousands. When you’re selling a news story, it’s easier to pitch House than Game of Thrones.

Bo, to his great credit, understood that it was his job to play this role and was good about separating the character and the reality – his reflections on Tripod, Lucky or Smart?, make clear that Bo knew he was lucky enough to assemble a smart team and smart enough to let the team make the important decisions. Having taken on that visible visionary role at nonprofit organizations, I also now understand how often that job sucks, how being the avatar for a vast project forces you to try and manifest qualities that the company has and which you, personally, lack.

I was thinking of this ancient history last week as I worked my way through Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. (In defense of my choice of beach reading – I read several better books on paper that week. But Audible’s selections are a lot more limited, and I wanted something to “read” as I walked on the beach.) Isaacson’s biography, written with Jobs’s cooperation and hundreds of interviews with Jobs, his family, friends and colleagues, is an enjoyable and uncomfortable read. I found it enjoyable because it’s another personal time machine of sorts – reading it, I remember my first time using Apple products, from the venerable Apple II through the laptops and phones I use today. It’s uncomfortable because it becomes increasingly clear that Steve Jobs was an angry, manipulative asshole who slashed and burned his way through the lives of most people he encountered.

Sue Halpern reviewed Isaacson’s book for NYRB and does a better job than I could ever hope to, raising uncomfortable questions about Jobs’s attempts to be both corporate and counterculture, reminding us that Apple’s “Designed in California” is made possible by being “Assembled in China” under often troubling circumstances. My favorite of her observations is that Isaacson manages both to canonize Jobs while revealing his most damning flaws: “.. it is possible to write a hagiography even while exposing the worst in a person.” Jobs saw himself as an artist, Isaacson reminds us, and artistic geniuses are often too strange and pure to peacefully coexist with us lesser mortals.

When Jobs chose Isaacson to write his biography, it’s fair to assume he was aware of the author’s previous subjects: Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Henry Kissinger. The first two are routinely cited as exemplars of genius, and Kissinger may have his own dark claims to genius. It’s not hard to read Jobs’s selection of Isaacson as a way of inserting himself into the Pantheon.

Isaacson is happy to assist. The book was rushed into print when Jobs died, and Isaacson wrote a coda, excerpted in the New York Times, to cover Jobs’s death, funeral and legacy. In the New York Times excerpt, Isaacson makes clear that he saw Jobs as a genius, even if he wasn’t always conventionally smart. It was Jobs’s ingenuity and creativity, his ability to see a brilliant technical idea and turn it into something that consumers wanted that characterized his genius, Isaacson argues. One of the major themes of the book is the intersection of the sciences and the humanities – Jobs saw himself as standing at that crossroads, using his acutely honed sense of taste to predict the technical future and inspire the technicians to invent it.

This unusual form of genius, if that’s what it was, makes Jobs a particularly accessible role model for the tech industry. Many people who work on technology for a living are not Wozniak-level programmers. We flatter ourselves that we can contribute to the industry by helping those more gifted at writing code understand the needs of users, the importance of usability, the applicability of technical breakthroughts to unexpected new markets. Perhaps, like Steve, we can “put a dent in the universe” by connecting someone’s technical innovations with new markets.

People who can bridge between engineers and end users are important, necessary and often hard to find. It’s harder than it might appear to build these bridges in ways that respect and appreciate all those involved in building and marketing new technologies. In finding ways to bridge constructively and respectfully, Jobs is a lousy role model much of the time. The answer to “What Would Steve Jobs Do” is often “bully someone” or “throw a tantrum”. Unfortunately, it’s often easier to emulate Jobs’s less attractive personality traits than it is to replicate his design sensibilities.

Taking a break from Isaacson’s book, I read a thoughtful essay by Joshua Wolf Shenk, a preview of his new book, Powers of Two. Shenk argues that the myth of the solitary genius has dominated much of our thinking about creativity and obscures the fact that many people we know as geniuses worked in pairs or in larger teams. Shenk is particularly interested in creative pairings, pointing out that Einstein worked through the theory of relativity with Michele Besso, that Picasso invented Cubism with Georges Braque and that Dr. Martin Luther King co-led the civil rights movement with Ralph Abernathy and others.

There’s a way to read Isaacson’s biography in support of Shenk’s argument. Jobs was most productive as a serial collaborator, and was often disastrously unsuccessful when he wasn’t challenged by a strong partner or a team he respected. Jobs built Apple Computer on the brilliance of Steve Wozniak’s Apple computer, led Pixar to dominance over Disney’s animation business by hitching his star to filmmaker John Lasseter, and reinvented Apple as a music and phone company by partnering closely with Jony Ive. (Search for any of these men and you’ll find a wealth of articles and books declaring them geniuses.) Jobs has been good about crediting these collaborators and, occasionally, teams of collaborators – he saw the Macintosh as a team effort and honored team members at subsequent Apple product launches until his death.

When he didn’t have a strong collaborator or team, Jobs was often lost, as he was when Woz disengaged from Apple after the Apple II, when Jobs founded Next, or during the years Jobs dumped tens of millions into Pixar as a technology company, before Lasseter’s films demonstrating Pixar hardware took the company out of obscurity. In retrospect, this is obvious – Jobs didn’t write code or build prototypes. Instead, he shaped and guided the work that others did, making it better. Without a worthy collaborator, Jobs’s deeply impressive skillset was insufficient and often irrelevant.

It doesn’t lessen Jobs to recognize that creative genius comes from collaboration. Letting go of the idea that Shakespeare was a solitary genius writing masterworks in an attic without outside input and accepting that he was a member of a popular theatre company, incorporating the influences and feedback of other writers and actors into his creations makes him more fascinating to me, not less. Since we don’t have much access to the historical details of Shakespeare’s life, it’s easier to see these collaborative dynamics in modern biographies. Jobs may be one of the best examples of the collaborative genius idea, as the solitary genius narrative simply makes no sense in considering his history. We can imagine Shakespeare alone in a garrett or Einstein puzzling out equations alone at a blackboard, but Jobs alone is just an angry vegan too picky about design to furnish his own mansion.

In writing a biography, it’s natural to lionize the protagonist, if only to explain why she or he merited the author’s attention. Isaacson is better than some in featuring Jobs’s collaborators and influences, but the form ultimately dictates that the book is about a single individual, not pairs and teams of collaborators. The narrative arc is that of Jobs’s life, not the life of the companies he built, the products they created or the industries they influenced.

How do we tell the stories of partnerships and collaborations? Shenk’s book promises to tell the stories of creative pairings, both visible ones like Lennon and McCartney and invisible ones like that of Vladimir and Vera Nabokov. But his essay hints at the intriguing problem of telling stories of more complex collaborations, like the one I experienced at Tripod. How do we tell a story about creativity and collaboration at Wikipedia that doesn’t become a biography of Jimmy Wales? Is there a story about Linux that’s not a portrait of Linus Torvalds, an examination of Free Software that isn’t a character sketch of Richard Stallman? Not only are humans creatures who think in terms of stories, we are social beings, which means there is nothing we are so attuned to as the life stories of successful people.

Nathan Matias, a brilliant poet, literary scholar and software developer (who happens to be my doctoral student) has been working on better systems to acknowledge and credit the dozens of collaborators he’s worked with on his various projects. His personal website features almost a hundred collaborators – clicking on the icon for any of us reveals projects we’ve worked on with Nathan. It’s a first step towards a broader effort at designing acknowledgement on the web, and a key part of Nathan’s research on collaboration that leverages cultural and cognitive diversity. If we want to encourage diverse collaboration (and the end of Rewire makes a case for why we need to do so), we need to figure out how to recognize and celebrate people who work as creative teams, not just those who demand to be celebrated as geniuses.

Steve Jobs changed the world, or at least some highly visible corners of it. The story of his life, his successes and his failures is an important one for anyone who designs products and tools for large audiences. It would be a shame if the message we took from Isaacson’s book were that success comes from arrogance, self-certainty and cruelty. Until someone discovers a better way to write biographies of collaboration, that’s a message many readers will take away.

Categories: Blog

Free Zone 9 Bloggers

July 31, 2014 - 8:25am

Once upon a time, there was a blog.

It was written in Amharic, the dominant language in Ethiopia, by a team of young journalists and thinkers who wanted to have an open, public conversation about the future of their nation.


Pictures of some of the Zone 9 bloggers

It’s not especially easy to talk about these issues in Ethiopia. Africa’s second largest country has been ruled by a neo-marxist government (EPRDF – Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democracy Front) which overthrew a brutal military dictatorship in 1991, instilling one-party autocratic rule in its place.

Part of EPRDF’s strategy of control is the silencing of dissent. When students protested rigged elections in 2005, the government blocked all SMS traffic for two years, claiming that opposition activists were using SMS to plan their campaigns. (They were. The real issue is that Ethiopia saw opposition political activity as a threat to regime stability.) Ethiopia briefly had a thriving and energetic blogosphere, but government censorship and harassment of bloggers quickly silenced many of those voices. The country’s independent press has been crippled by Ethiopia’s strategy of imprisoning the strongest journalistic voices, including PEN prizewinner Eskinder Nega, in the country’s notorious Kaliti Prison.

Tens of thousands are held in Kaliti prison, in the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Journalists and other political prisoners are held in Zone 8 of the prison, and they jokingly refer to the rest of the nation, itself in a prison of sorts, as “Zone 9″. Thus the name of the blog: the Zone 9 bloggers are writing from the outer ring of the prison, the nation itself.

Zone 9 member Endalk explains:

In the suburbs of Addis Ababa, there is a large prison called Kality where many political prisoners are currently being held, among them journalists Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alemu. The journalists have told us a lot about the prison and its appalling conditions. Kality is divided into eight different zones, the last of which — Zone Eight — is dedicated to journalists, human right activists and dissidents.

When we came together, we decided to create a blog for the proverbial prison in which all Ethiopians live: this is Zone Nine.

Ethiopia sees itself in danger of splitting into rival, warring parts. This fear is not unfounded – Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia in 1991 after a thirty-year war, taking Ethiopia’s seacoast with it. (Sadly, Eritrea is also a one-party state notorious for jailing journalists.) Ethnic Somalis in the Ogaden region and ethnic Oromo have been seeking independent states – their armed movements, the ODLF and the OLF are seen as terrorist organizations by the Ethiopian government.

The Ethiopian government does face a real threat from armed militants. But it has a disturbing tendency to label anyone who expresses dissent as a terrorist. Consider Eskinder Nega. Nega’s crime was to report on the Arab Spring protests and to point out that Ethiopia could face similar protests if the government did not reform and open up. He was charged with “planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement and attempt” of terrorist acts and is now serving an 18 year prison sentence.

The Zone 9 bloggers were understandably scared by Nega’s arrest and prosecution, and the blog went silent for over a year. This spring, they decided they could not remain silent any longer. On April 25th, the government responded by arresting 6 members of the blogging team, and three journalists the government saw as “affiliated” with the bloggers.

The charges against the bloggers give a sense of what the Ethiopian government is fighting: dissent, not terror. Much of the charge sheet focuses on accusations that bloggers traveled out of the country to receive training in encrypting their communications, specifically through using Security in a Box, a package of Open Source software compiled by Tactical Tech, an organization that helps free speech and journalistic organizations protect themselves from surveillance. The Ethiopian government accuses the Zone 9 bloggers of using these tools in an attempt to “overthrow, modify or suspend the Federal or State Constitution; or by violence, threats, or conspiracy.” In fact, the bloggers were using such tools to coordinate their reporting work, hoping to avoid detection and arrest by a paranoid government.

These charges give a sense for how hard it is to work on free speech issues in repressive countries. Global Voices worked with Zone 9 in 2012 to create the Amharic edition of Global Voices. (That edition hasn’t been updated recently due to the imprisonment of our partners.) Four of the bloggers held in Kaliti are Global Voices volunteers. Other members of the team who work with Global Voices are in exile and would be arrested if they returned home. Knowing how dangerous it is to report from Ethiopia, we helped our volunteers find resources like Security in a Box. Our attempts to help create a safer environment for free speech in Ethiopia are now part of the case against our friends.


Obama and Zenawi share a laugh

Compounding the sadness and frustration we at Global Voices are feeling is the fact that Ethiopia is a massive recipient of foreign aid, hosts the headquarters of the African Union and is a key military ally to the US, seen as a stable, Christian bulwark against Somalia. Meles Zenawi enjoyed a warm relationship with the Obama administration (the President’s statement on Zenawi’s death included a cursory mention of human rights after praising Zenawi’s focus on food security), and there’s been little evidence that the State Department has any plans of getting tough with Ethiopia on issues of free speech or human rights.

At Global Voices, we are trying to call attention to the plight of the Zone 9 bloggers, hoping for action from the US State Department to seek their immediate release, and an easing of Ethiopia’s war on independent media. We are asking friends to join in using the #FreeZone9Bloggers hashtag, and to direct tweets to @StateDept.

This is a hard time to call attention to this situation, we know. Ellery Biddle, writing for Global Voices, notes that her Twitter client autofills the hashtag #Free____ with half a dozen choices, many of them our community members. It’s an appropriate time to tweet the State Department to demand Israel protect the safety of civilians in Gaza, or to demand that news media cover the ongoing catastrophe in Syria. In asking for help, I don’t want to lessen anyone’s outrage about other injustice, but to ask for help bringing visibility to the plight of our friends who are otherwise likely to be forgotten in international diplomatic circles.

Categories: Blog

Egyptian sumo wrestler bests a grand champion. Twice. While fasting for Ramadan.

July 18, 2014 - 10:23am

My regular readers know that I’m a fan of sumo, and am especially interested in the globalization of the sport. The top three rikishi (wrestlers) in Japanese sumo are from Mongolia, and top ranks of the sport have recently featured competitors from Bulgaria, Georgia, Russia, Estonia and Brazil. On the one hand, this is helping a distinctly Japanese tradition gain global audiences, which is a great thing for the quality of the sport. On the other hand, the globalization is in part due to waning interest in the sport by Japanese youth (few of whom are excited about living the highly-regimented life of the sumo wrestler), and globalization may be contributing to waning interest in Japan, as it has been many years since a Japanese rikishi was the top competitor in the sport. (If this topic is interesting to you, you might enjoy a ten minute talk I gave on the subject to Microsoft Research in January 2013, available as video or as my notes.

This is the first week of the Nagoya basho, one of six two-week tournaments that are the heart of the Japanese sumo season, and much of the big news is about a foreign competitor who has recently joined the sport. Abdelrahman Shalan, who competes in sumo as Osunaarashi (which translates as “the great sandstorm”), is a 138kg, 22-year old Egyptian, who is the first Arab, the first African and the first Muslim to compete at the top level of sumo. Osunaarashi came to Japan in August 2011 to compete, and has moved through the ranks very quickly, competing for less than two years at the lower levels of the sport before joining the highest level of competition (maegashira) this past November.


Osunaarashi defeats Harumafuji!

This week, he’s making headlines not for his origins, but for his performance. Yesterday and today, Osunaarashi scored back to back kinboshi, victories of a lower ranked wrestler over a yokozuna, or grand champion. In other words, yesterday and today, Osunaarashi fought the very best guys in the sport and won. It’s worth mentioning that these two matches were the first time Osunaarashi had ever faced yokozuna, which makes the achievement even more impressive.

Kinboshi are relatively rare in sumo. The term means “gold star”, and it refers to the fact that sumo victories and losses are traditionally tallied with white stars for wins and black stars for losses. A gold star signifies a particularly important win. These victories are so rare because yokozuna don’t lose very often – Hakuho, the most senior yokozuna, finishes most tournaments 13-2, 14-1 or a perfect 15-0… and those few losses are usually to other yokozuna or other high-ranked wrestlers (ozeki, komusubi, sekiwake). For an “ordinary” rikishi (i.e., a guy who’s competing in the top league, but hasn’t yet earned a particular rank) to beat a yokozuna is a significant enough achievement that fans usually respond by grabbing the cushions they are sitting on and throwing them into the air. The rikishi is rewarded with a modest, but significant, raise in pay, and the lists of rikishi who have accomplished kinboshi are relatively short and filled with sumo superstars. (Only 9 active competitors have 2 or more kinboshi.)

If you weren’t impressed by the fact that Osunaarashi beat yokozuna the first two times he faced them, leading the Japanese press to call him a “giant killer”, consider this: the man is fasting for Ramadan. Obviously, eating is an important part of sumo – one of the reasons rikishi live and train in communal houses is so they can follow a regimen of eating, sleeping and training that allows them to gain and maintain weight. But sumo training is demanding martial arts training, and in the summer in Japan, wrestlers gulp down water as they train to stay hydrated and cool. During Ramadan, Osunaarashi neither eats nor drinks during the day – in a Japanese-language interview, the head of his sumo “stable”, Otake Oyakata, explains that he hoses Osunaarashi down during workouts to keep him cool when he cannot drink water. Last year, >commentators were concerned that Osunaarashi would not be able to compete for a full 15 days while fasting – the big man went 10-5, and I’ve yet to see a news story this year that even mentions his observance.

I have enormous respect for Osunaarashi, who not only is showing himself as a magnificent athlete, but is introducing the Japanese public to the dedication, intensity and beauty of the Muslim faith. Sumo wrestlers are not just competitors, but celebrities and cultural figures. Osunaarashi is emerging as an ambassador for the Muslim world, appearing as a guest lecturer in university classes and on TV to talk about differences and similarities between Japan and Egypt, between Islam and Shintoism.

I also have great admiration for Otake Oyakata, who has broken some of the traditions of sumo to make it possible for Osunaarashi to compete. Life in the sumo beya is highly ritualized – simply giving Osunaarashi time to pray five times a day is a break from sumo routines. Rikishi eat a rich, pork-heavy stew called chankonabe to pack on weight – the Otake stable now offers a fish-based chankonabe to Osunaarashi so he can gain weight while eating halal. These sound like minor changes, but they’re a big deal for a sport that is deeply rooted in Japanese tradition and extremely slow to change. (Rikishi appear in public wearing kimono and sandals, never in western street clothes, for example.)

My friend Hiromi Onishi, a senior executive with Asahi Shinbum, and I have been bonding over our fondness for Osunaarashi and trading links about him. Hiromi theorizes that Osunaarashi’s popularity in Japan tracks the nation’s engagement with different parts of the world. In the 1980s, Hawaiian sumo wrestlers came to dominate the sport, just as Japanese tourists were beginning to travel to those destinations. As Mongolians came into the sport in the early 2000s and eastern Europeans in the later 2000s, Japan has been increasingly globalized and engaging in trade and travel to these parts of the world. Now, as Japanese hotels learn to provide halal options for Muslim travelers and show other signs of connection to the Muslim world, Osunaarashi emerges as an ambassador.

For those of you meaning to start watching sumo, it’s great to have someone to support. If you’re an African, an Arab, a Muslim, or any other kind of human being, please join me in supporting Osunaarashi. With two kinboshi, he’s likely to win the Outstanding Performance prize in this tournament, and if he keeps his winning ways up, perhaps he can defeat Hakuho as well and take down all three yokozuna. Inshallah!

Thoughtful Quora post from Sed Chapman on the history of foreign rikishi and Japan’s reactions to Osunaarashi.

Kintamayama posts footage of bashos with English title cards – an amazing resource for the sumo fan outside Japan.

Categories: Blog

Summer Reading: Dan Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One

July 10, 2014 - 7:37am

Much of my summer reading centers on the idea of civics outside of the conventional bounds of the state. I’m interested in understanding reasons why individuals and groups grow frustrated with traditional state-bound politics, and what forms of civics they explore when they opt out of engagement with the state. I’m fond of extreme cases as a way of understanding the limits of a position, so I’ve been reading about seasteading, the “dark enlightenment” movement, and prepper culture, all of which appear to me to be responses to the perception that existing states are inexorably failing.

These three forms of exit all involve a conscious renunciation of states and their accompanying services and protections. In the case of seasteading and the DE folks, this renunciation is made on an ideological basis, the belief that freedom from state tyranny (defined various ways, but usually through taxation and regulation) requires exit from political systems rather than the use of voice to influence these systems. Preppers see a collapse of existing states, either through political or natural disaster, as inevitable, and preparation to survive the collapse as prudent.

In reading about these movements, I was intrigued to see the phrase “zombie apocalypse” recur as an example of the sorts of disasters that might bring existing states to their demise. Nick Land, one of the central thinkers of the Dark Enlightenment movement, titles a section of his manifesto, “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards zombie apocalypse”, a particularly dark way of stating his reactionary historical thesis. In the prepper community, “zombie apocalypse” is a common enough shorthand for “unspecified disaster” that the US Centers for Disease Control has used Zombie Preparedness as a way to get Americans to talk about more conventional disasters they should prepare for, like tornados or floods.

But zombies are not just another natural disaster, and our anxieties about zombies are more complicated and multilayered than our fears of the implications of global warming. As John Feffer notes, our fear of zombies is a manifestation of our broader fears about globalization and pandemic, and about immigration and “the enemy within”, the post-9/11 anxiety about sleeper cells and the fears that our neighbors will turn out to be homicidally “other”. Accompanying the fears is a set of fantasies. The dream of the well-prepared survivor protecting his or her family from mindless hordes is remarkably similar whether the hordes are composed of fellow citizens less prepared for the disaster, hungry for carefully stockpiled resources, or the undead hungry for brains. The zombie apocalypse is caused when people who look like us, but are not as resourceful/prepared/strong/worthy as us, become the enemy. It’s John Galt’s nightmare, where unproductive moochers rise up to demand food, education, healthcare and eventually the very lives of the more productive and worthy citizens.

The “what’s mine is mine” stance isn’t the only possible reaction to societal collapse, including zombie apocalypse. Jeriah Bowser, who self-identifies as a prepper, has a beautiful response to this selfish view of the comping collapse. His thoughtful piece on teaching wilderness survival to preppers concludes:

I very strongly believe that, in the coming collapse, those who are able to build communities and work together – abandoning their childish, apocalyptic fantasies – will have a much better chance of survival than any Prepper I have come across. Besides, what is “survival” even worth if you are encased in a concrete bunker for years, eating MRE’s and drinking recycled piss water, living in a constant state of paranoia that someone will “take what’s yours?” Not me, I would much rather live my last days actively doing meaningful work with people I love, creating a more beautiful world than the one we left behind; a world that is based on egalitarianism for all species and types of humans, a world built on cooperation, sustainability, simplicity, and freedom. You can keep your bunkers.”)

If we want to move beyond “hide and hoard” approaches, we need to consider the role of large-scale human organization in the face of the zombie threat. While most literature on the undead focuses on individual preparedness and response, it is worth considering the ways in which the zombie apocalypse has consequences for existing states, up to and including, their collapse. Fortunately, political scientist Daniel Drezner has considered the implications of widespread zombie attack and the stresses it would create on states in his seminal “Theories of International Politics and Zombies.” Published in 2011, Drezner’s volume is not only the most comprehensive overview of likely state responses to the rise of flesh-eating formerly dead ghouls, it is also a thoughtful overview of the zombie canon (though clearly an American-centered understanding of the canon that consciously excludes the West African/Haitian view of zombies as living servants enslaved by magic or pharmacology, for example.)

Dresner explores state responses to a zombie pandemic from various philosophical points of view. Political realists, he predicts, will see zombies as a manageable fact of life in a globalized world, more threatening to weak states than to strong ones (much as communicable diseases and famines are.) Liberals will seek cooperation through international institutions and may mitigate and contain the threat of the living dead through regulation, but their insistence on open societies will complicate crisis response by forcing governments to deal with civil society, which may support zombie rights. Neocons will likely incorporate zombies into an Axis of the Evil Dead and turn a disastrous war on zombies into a war on autocrats, likely creating more zombies in the process.

Some of Dresner’s most nuanced analysis comes in the chapter on the social construction of zombies. Referencing thinkers like Alex Wendt, Dresner outlines a constructivist view of zombies based around the core idea that “zombies are what humans make of them”. Under a constructivist theory, zombie and human coexistence is both possible and desirable – the key is to escape existing paradigms that see the rise of zombies as an existential threat to human existence and to seek integration of zombies into human society, much as is accomplished at the end of Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead”.

In exploring the constructivist approach to zombies, Dresner steps up to the edge of a radical idea, then steps back. Dresner’s serious consideration of human/zombie coexistence is a brave move, though one he’s clearly uncomfortable with. In his literature review, Dresner makes clear “this project is explicitly prohuman, while Marxists and feminists would likely sympathize more with the zombies.” (p.17) In his consideration of liberal, multilateralist approaches to the zombie phenomenon, he warns that the rise of activist organizations to protect zombie rights would likely complicate or prevent global zombie eradication. (p.58-9)

Perhaps due to his inherent anthropocentrism, his suspicion of rights-based theories of politics, or the simple fact that the extant zombie literature had yet to articulate this view, Dresner is not able to consider the idea that perhaps zombification is, perhaps, a desirable next state of human existence. This radical idea is articulated by celebrated novelist Colson Whitehead, whose underappreciated contribution to the zombie canon, “Zone One”, follows a “sweeper” nicknamed Mark Spitz, tasked with clearing lower Manhattan of zombies to make the nation’s most valuable real estate inhabitable once more. “Zone One”, Manhattan below Canal Street, is one of the last safe zones in a United States transformed by zombie attacks.

(SPOILER ALERT – Stop reading here if you’re planning on reading the novel.)

While annihilation is a common theme in the zombie canon, most works focus on the transformation of society by the zombie threat. Protagonists die, but humanity survives. There are simple narrative reasons for this: it’s hard to follow a narrative when all narrators have been exterminated. In Whitehead’s apocalypse, it becomes increasingly clear that humanity cannot survive. Lower Manhattan will fall. At the close of the book, we learn that the narrator’s nickname comes from his inability to swim and fear of water, which has near-perilous consequences as he is trapped by zombies with escape possible only by diving into a stream. (As with all of Whitehead’s work, this is a comment on race in America, a reference to stereotypes of African-Americans not learning to swim.) As the novel comes to a close, waves of zombies, held back by a fragile wall, threaten to swamp Zone One and Mark Spitz realizes that it is time to learn to swim, to dive over the wall and embrace his new life as a zombie. This is suicide, the annihilation of the self, but it is also rebirth, the embrace of a new way of being in the world.

Whitehead’s radical suggestion is that we entertain the idea that it might be okay to become a zombie. That Whitehead continually confronts the idea of otherness by examining what it means to be black in a white world, may invite us to consider this idea purely as metaphor. But read literally, it’s an intriguing concept, though impossible to evaluate as the zombie is constructed as so radically other than we cannot imagine our zombified existence in anything other than cartoonish terms. (Consider how few narratives are offered from the zombie’s eye view – Jonathan Coulton’s “re: Your Brains” is one fine example, but is a reminder that the zombie perspective is so uncomfortable, it must be played for laughs, not serious consideration.)

If we read the zombie as the fear of the immigrant as other, Whitehead’s possible future merits close consideration. Some of the anxiety over the zombie invasion maps to fear of a “majority minority” nation, one where the current “default” white, Anglo-Saxon identity is merely one of many origins and backgrounds that make up a heterogenous whole. Perhaps Dresner needs to offer an update, informed by Whitehead’s addition to the canon, that considers a cosmopolitan framing of the states and zombies question. If cosmopolitanism involves recognizing the validity of other ways of living life and accepting that we may have obligations to those who live differently, perhaps it offers a framework for human/zombie coexistence, and perhaps, a richer, more varied society that recognizes the contributions and perspectives of the differently animated.

More likely, this cosmopolitan framework would rapidly lead to annihilation of human life as we know it. “As we know it” is the key phrase. The radical version of the cosmopolitan stance demands we consider the possibility that a world transformed by zombies is an optimistic future, or perhaps simply a less bleak future than one in which the main form of human existence is self-centered conflict to avoid the zombie onslaught. This is a subtext in virtually all of the zombie canon: the seven occupants of the farmhouse in Romero’s foundational Night of the Living Dead cannot cooperate or compromise, while the zombie horde at their door is remarkably coherent and peaceful, united by their desire for tasty human flesh. If we cannot unite to tackle an existential threat, perhaps we deserve our extinction. Perhaps our unity with the horde is a higher state.

This is why the zombie apocalypse analogy is such a dangerous one. If we cannot imagine a future in which we survive our encounter with the other, our likely response is to hide and hoard, to hunker down, as Robert Putnam describes, in the most extreme (and heavily armed) ways possible. Drezner does us a service in positing a world where we manage a zombie invasion much as we manage any other pandemic, and life is transformed, but still recognizable. But as soon as we posit an other – zombies, terrorists, (welfare recipients and liberals for the DE folks) – whose desire for our extinction is innate, coexistence is impossible, cooperation towards extinction of the threat fraught, and our annihilation inevitable. “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”

Categories: Blog

Life, only moderately messed up: understanding high-functioning depression

July 8, 2014 - 7:55am

My wife is one of the bravest people I know.

Almost six years ago, Rachel got pregnant. When we found out, she was in Colorado and I was home in western Massachusetts, and in phone calls and emails we giddily planned for the future. Five days after discovering she was pregnant, she miscarried.

Rachel mourned the end of her pregnancy by writing, processing a set of crushing emotions into a slim volume of poetry, Through. It’s not one she often turns to when she reads in public, but women who need the book seem to find the book, and she hears often from readers for whom the book was a lifeline in a very difficult time.

Not long after, Rachel got pregnant again and gave birth to Drew. In those first weeks of the sleepless, fumbling process of learning how to parent an infant, it was hard to notice Rachel falling into postpartum depression. It was months in, when Rachel was finding it hard to do anything more that nurse and sleep, that friends and family urged her to get help. She did and she got better, producing another book of poetry in the process, Waiting to Unfold.

(When Rachel reads poems from that book, some of the darkest lines get loud laughs from the audience. The level of despair associated with acute depression is hard to understand when you’re not personally plumbing those depths – it’s easier to understand those images as jokes about the dark night of the soul rather than actual dispatches from its depths. I suspect those that really need the poems read them as written.)

In a funny way, Rachel’s bouts with depression and her profound honesty in writing about her experiences have made it harder, not easier, to write and talk about my own depression. Having someone you love go through acute depression can make it easier to see the symptoms of depression in others, but may make it harder to see moderate, high-functioning depression, which is what I appear to be prone towards.

I was depressed for most of 2013, from roughly March through December. (I’m doing much better now – thanks for asking. One way you can tell is that I’m writing about the experience, something I could not have done last year.) Much of the depression coincided with the release of my book, Rewire, which was unfortunate for two reasons. One, I did a lousy job of promoting the book, and two, smart friends counseled me that publishing a book often leads to feelings of loss and mourning, which may well be true, but isn’t the best explanation for what happened to me during those nine months.

I didn’t understand that I had been depressed last year until a natural experiment came along. Every six months, MIT’s Media Lab holds “members week”, where principal investigators open our labs to the corporate, foundation and government sponsors who fund our work. Members week in the spring and fall of 2013 was an utterly miserable experience for me. It took physical effort to haul myself out of my office and talk to the folks who’d come to discuss our work, and I was exhausted for days after from the effort. I’d decided that this was normal – MIT is a high-stress place and members week is one of the higher stress experiences at the Media Lab.

But then I went through members week this spring, which was… fun. A really great time, actually. I’m proud of the work I and my students were showing, excited to see what my colleagues were working on and excited to see friends I have at the companies and organizations that sponsor the Media Lab’s work. I got a second chance at a natural experiment with Center for Civic Media’s annual conference, which we run each June with the Knight Foundation. I remember virtually nothing of 2013′s conference, and I spent a week in bed afterwards. 2014′s conference was a good time intellectually and emotionally, and not only did I manage to feel better after the conference was over than I did on the first day, I also managed to get in a four-mile walk each day before sessions started.

Objectively, there’s a lot that’s harder in my life this spring and summer than there was in 2013 – illness in my extended family, uncertainty about financial support for my research. If mental state were purely a reflection of life circumstances, these meetings should have been harder in 2014 than in 2013. But that’s not how depression works. While depressed, everyday tasks are hard, and social tasks that challenge my introverted nature are extremely hard. They’re not impossible, just highly draining, which is why high-functioning depression is hard to see in others.

These natural experiments have forced me to think about my depression and why it’s been hard for me to see. In retrospect, I now think I’ve had several periods of significant depression since college, and twice have sought professional help. (That I’ve never been put on medication for depression is more a function of my obstinacy and ability to talk my way out of treatment than an objective evaluation of my psychological state.) As I’ve been “coming out” to myself about depression, my closest friends have offered sympathetic versions of “well, duh!”, noting that it’s been clear to them when I’m having a hard time and am not my normal self.

My guess is that my depression is significantly less visible to people who know me only professionally. I’ve never missed work or another professional obligation. I teach classes, give talks, advise students, attend meetings. The difference is almost entirely internal. When I’m my normal self, those activities are routine, easy, and leave a good bit of physical and emotional energy for creativity and expression. When I’m depressed, the everyday is a heavy lift, and there’s little space for anything else. The basic work of answering email and managing my calendar expands to fill any available time in the day. I’m far less productive, which triggers a voice that reminds me that I’m an unqualified impostor whose successes are mere happy accidents and that my ability to write a simple blog post is proof positive that I’m in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing, in need of walking away from my life as currently configured and starting over. It’s an exhausting dialog, one that crops up for moments at a time when I’m well, but can fill weeks and months when I am not.

I think what’s made it hard for me to identify my own depression is having close family and friends who’ve dealt with severe depression. What I’ve experienced isn’t anywhere as serious as what friends have gone through, including bouts of near-catatonia. The problem with having experience with the harrowing and dangerous extremes of mental illness is that the experience of being moderately messed up may not even register on the spectrum. (I’m going to use the term “moderately messed up” to describe only my own experiences, so please don’t give me any crap about the political incorrectness of the term – moderately messed up is how I best understand my experiences.)

There are cases where it’s harder to find help as someone who’s moderately messed up than someone dealing with a more acute illness. About three months into this bout with depression, I decided to give up drinking. I theorized that I might have an easier time navigating this tough patch if I wasn’t rewarding myself for getting through a hard day with a few drinks every night. Thankfully, alcoholism isn’t a forbidden topic anymore, and twelve step approaches like Alcoholics Anonymous have been tremendously effective for many people, including friends and family. (My friend Wiktor Osiatynski’s remarkable account, “Rehab”, helped me understand why many people describe AA as having saved their lives.)

But powerlessness in the face of addiction doesn’t accurately represent my situation. I came up as a “sensible drinker” on the AUDIT questionnaire and other screening tests for alcoholism. While the Denis Johnson fan in me is vaguely disappointed in my largely undebauched lifestyle, the main consequence of my drinking history is an ample beer belly.

I ended up taking a year off from drinking, with very little difficulty, and have gone back to moderate drinking and haven’t found it particularly hard to stop drinking after reaching the limit I’ve set for myself. I recognize that I am deeply fortunate, and I gratefully acknowledge that many people who have trouble with alcohol do have a disease for which abstinence and support is one appropriate response. (New research suggests that cognitive behavior therapy and harm reduction may have at least as positive results.) But it’s harder to find advice and support for the moderately messed up; detox and recovery wasn’t what I needed – I needed help changing my habits and drinking less. (Talking about this question with friends, one pointed me to Moderation Management, which might well have helped.)

As with my drinking, I am deeply fortunate that my depression is something that’s not life threatening. But that’s allowed me to gloss over long stretches of my life when I’ve not been my best, where daily life is a heavy lift. Identifying the past year as a period of high-functioning depression hasn’t led to the miracle cure or support group, but it’s allowed me to have incredibly helpful conversations with friends who are taking proactive steps to cope with their own depressive tendencies. A dear friend, a brilliant and productive programmer, uses meditation to help him manage depressive spells. I’m finding that walking is critical to my psychological health, as is finding a way to put firmer walls around my work life. (Turns out that the upside of drinking is that makes it very hard to do academic work, forcing an end to your work day. A year without drinking helped me see how flimsy my work/life barriers are.)

So why write about depression? One set of reasons is practical, and selfish. I process by writing, and much of my processing right now centers on these issues. I write better in public than in private, and so this is likely a helpful step for me, independent of whether reading this is helpful for you in any way. And writing about depression here, on the record, makes it harder for me to delude myself the next time I find myself writing off a bout of depression as just “a rough patch.”

It’s possible that writing about depression is also the responsible and helpful thing to do. Rachel talks about her decision to open much of her spiritual and emotional life to her congregation and to her readers, acknowledging that it would be a sin of omission if her congregants didn’t know that her experience of offering prayers of healing was deeply informed by having loved ones in the hospital who she was praying for. There’s a balance, she notes, between sharing emotions and making herself a three-dimensional human for her congregants and leaning on them to shoulder her troubles. My hope is that there’s a way to write about these issues that’s less a call for support (not what I need right now) and more an invitation to talk.

So far, talking about my experiences this past year has led three friends to talk about their own struggles with depression and others to talk about anxiety, mania or other issues they are coping with. The only way these conversations have altered my friendships is to deepen them: I am more likely to turn to these friends the next time I am struggling and hope they will turn to me as well. It turns out that depression is remarkably common in the US, affecting as many as one in ten people in any given year. As Ian Gent observed, nearly everyone in academia is high-functioning. As a result, there is necessarily a large contingent of high-functioning depressives at MIT, likely including some of my students and colleagues. If I can be open and approachable on the topic, perhaps it makes it easier for people to seek me out for help at a university where stress is epidemic and sometimes celebrated. (In the first semester I taught at MIT, two colleagues told me stories of professors who ended up hospitalized for overwork. These stories weren’t offered as warnings – they were celebrations of an admired work ethic. That’s an environment that makes it hard to talk about depression or other mental health issues.)

I’m writing about depression because I can. As John Scalzi has memorably noted, “straight white male” is the lowest difficulty setting in the game of life. Add to that the fact that I’ve got a good job at an institution that is trying to do the right things on work/life balance, with a boss who’s written openly about his relationships with alcohol and other health issues, and it’s simply easier for me to write about these issues without fearing professional consequences than it is for many others. I believe that speech begets speech, and if more people are talking about working through depression, it becomes easier for the next person wrestling with these issues.

Categories: Blog

“New media, new civics?” and reactions in Policy & Internet

July 7, 2014 - 8:17am

This past December, I gave a talk at the Oxford Internet Institute about possible relationships between “new media” and new approaches to participatory civics – I blogged my notes for the talk at the time.

The fine folks at OII asked whether I would be willing to publish the notes of the lecture in the journal Policy & Internet, edited by Vili Lehdonvirta, who had invited me to lecture at Oxford, and by Helen Margetts and Sandra Gonzalez Bailon. I agreed, and worked with the editors to polish my handwavings into something more permanent.

What I had not realized was that the editors had solicited a set of responses to the lecture from some of the smartest people in the new media, political theory and social activism space. The latest issue of P&I features my essay, as well as responses from Zeynep Tufekci, Jennifer Earl, Henry Farrell, Phil Howard, Deen Freelon and Chris Wells, who do a great job individually and collectively of challenging and expanding my thinking.

P&I, unfortunately, is protected by paywall, but I and others involved are archiving pre-press versions of our papers. Mine will be up on MIT’s DSpace repository in the near future and is here in the meantime. Other participants have been making their pieces available online as well. If you’ve got access through your university or a library, please check out the whole issue!

Categories: Blog

Town Meeting and a lesson on civic efficacy

June 11, 2014 - 4:12pm

Last night, I attended Town Meeting in Lanesborough, MA.

Town meeting government is peculiar to New England and especially strong in Massachusetts, where almost 300 of the state’s municipalities are governed by an annual meeting of town residents. My town is under the population threshold of 6000 at which towns can choose to elect representatives to town meeting. In small towns like ours, we are required to hold an open town meeting, at which any residents may speak and ask questions and where registered voters vote on any major discretionary spending and on changes to the town’s bylaws.

These aren’t the question and answer sessions with national-level elected officials that became infamous for revealing how angry and partisan many American are. They are dead practical discussions of individual line items in the annual budget of a small, mostly volunteer-run organization. (Lanesborough has three elected selectmen, who appoint a paid town manager. The selectmen are nominally compensated for their work, and most committee members are volunteers. The town’s budget of $10 million, goes almost exclusively towards salaries for teachers, school administrators, police and highway workers.) The conversations that take place aren’t the sort that play well on cable TV news – instead, they’re familiar to anyone who’s served on the board of a budget-constrained nonprofit organization.

Town meetings are frequently lauded as one of the purest forms of direct democracy. Everyone has a voice, which is a good and a bad thing – only fifteen minutes into last night’s meeting, it became clear why every meeting has a moderator and why that moderator has extremely broad discretion over closing discussion on a topic. About an hour into the meeting, I asked a question about a $10,000 expenditure on road repairs, and quickly regretted doing so. I was curious because it was the sole article on the warrant where the selectmen and finance committee were at odds, and I was interested to know what the dispute was about. Half an hour later, I knew a great deal more about the problem of runoff from unpaved roads into Pontoosuc Lake, snowplowing and the nuances of accepted, non-accepted and private roads than I’d really wanted to know.


Mark Schiek, Mount Greylock Building Committee Chairman, speaks at Lanesborough Town Meeting. Photo from iBerkshires

I was acutely aware of the time my question was taking up because, like most of the people who attended the meeting, I was there because of a single article, Article 21, slated for discussion near the end of the meeting. Lanesborough has quite high tax rates (38th statewide), even for Massachusetts, in part because we maintain our own elementary school and share a high school with larger, wealthier Williamstown. That high school has serious structural deficiencies, and there’s a plan on the table to retrofit the building or build a new facility. First step in that plan is gaining approval for a $850,000 feasibility study at the town meetings in Williamstown and Lanesborough.

Many of the people in the elementary school gym last night are parents of young children (like me) who wanted to ensure that their children’s high school remains strong. And, like me, many were paying babysitters to watch their kids so they could vote in favor of a feasibility study.

My presence at Town Meeting was a straightforward illustration of an idea Anthea Watson Strong introduced at the recent Personal Democracy Forum in New York. To explain why it’s often difficult to get people involved in civics, she offered an equation:

The benefit of renovations to our local high school is quite high for me: my son enters kindergarden in 15 months, which means he’s likely to enjoy the full benefits of a new or renovated middle and high school. Those campaigning in favor of the feasibility study persuaded me that P was pretty high, as they were expecting showdown between pro-education and anti-tax forces, and they needed every vote they could get, as this allocation requires a supermajority. Even without considering duty, P * B was high enough to overcome the substantial cost of action: three hours of a babysitter, a rushed dinner instead of a night of bad TV on the couch.

As it happens, Article 21 didn’t need my vote. Several townspeople spoke passionately about the need for strong schools, one suggesting that as Berkshire County shrinks in population, we should expect our high school to become a magnet for high performing students in nearby communities. Members of the regional school committee had good answers to probing questions about school choice, tuition for out of town students and the steps in funding a renovation process. Two townspeople spoke against the article – as it turned out, they were the only ones I saw vote against the article – well over a hundred voted for it. I misperceived P – spending time at Town Meeting seemed like an effective civic action because I anticipated showdown that didn’t actually occur. (I suspect that “perceived P” is more important than actual P – if you think your vote counts, you’re more likely to vote.)

When the Article passed, dozens of people left the meeting. I left, too – I wanted to pay my babysitter and get to bed. In the process, I illustrated precisely the problem Massachusetts communities are having with town meeting. Several communities have abandoned the meeting system of government because it’s very hard to get people to attend when there’s not a controversial issue on the table. In other words, D is very low. In my case, it’s low enough that it hasn’t moved me to attend Town Meeting in the 15 years I’ve lived in town, until an issue arose where PB > C.

That may change for me. I learned a great deal about my town by attending town meeting, details about how the water, sewers and roads work that I’ve honestly never thought about. The main thing I learned was that to participate in these meetings effectively, I’d need to do a great deal of reading ahead of time, much as I prepare for budget committee meetings for NGO boards I sit on. At that point, P would be higher (though, most of the time, I’m not sure B or D is high enough for me to stay engaged.)

These calculations about the civic utility of attending town meeting suggest some problems for those who are seeking change through government transparency. It’s hard to think of a ritual more conducive to transparency than the Town Meeting. The town publishes an annual report with a detailed, proposed budget ahead of time, and every line of the budget can be questioned by any resident. While this transparency is laudable, it’s also extremely confusing to those who don’t know the issues already. Transparency without explanation opens the process to those who have time and motivation to learn what’s at stake. The rest of us could use a good guide, something we rely on the increasingly stretched local press for. The Berkshire Eagle ran a brief story about what issues were on the table at the meeting, though no follow up about what decisions were made. (A local news site had an excellent article on the Article 21 vote.)

There’s another way of considering engagement in Town Meeting, beyond Anthea’s PB + D > C
equation. Zeynep Tufekci, reacting to a tweet I posted about Anthea’s framework, wondered whether a game theoretic equation was the best explanation for civic behavior. She suggested that most people participate in social movements because their friends are participating, or because it seemed like “the right moment”, not because of some careful calculus. That’s true for me, too. My favorite waitress at Bob’s Country Kitchen, who’s slated to be my son’s kindergarten teacher, urged me to pay attention to the school funding issue, and friends at a BBQ talked about the importance of passing Article 21. Without those nudges from my neighbors, it’s a lot less likely that I’d have left my house last night.

Much of my research on civics focuses on questions of why people don’t find it effective to engage with their governments. It was a refreshing challenge to my thinking to spend time with my local government and find it surprisingly open and responsive. At the same time, it was a reminder that many of the issues I care about – prison reform, gun control – aren’t ever going to be settled in a room as transparent and congenial as the Lanesborough Elementary School gym.

Categories: Blog

Lessons learned from walking at work

June 10, 2014 - 12:39pm

MIT’s commencement was Friday, and (despite the fact that most of my Masters students are continuing to work on their theses over the summer) my official summer began yesterday. Yes, I’m looking forward to catching up on reading, not driving into Boston and the general wonder of the Berkshires in the sunshine… but I’m most looking forward to working from my walking desk.

I have been restructuring my life around walking over the past couple of years. I’ve found that it’s the only exercise I can consistently get myself to do when I’m at home, in Cambridge or on the road. In Cambridge, I now stay in a bed and breakfast three miles away from my office, in part so I can get almost half of my daily walking goal during a 50 minute walk to work. When I travel, I try to wake up early and take hour-long walks around the city I’m staying in, which is good for combatting jetlag and for getting the lay of the land.

At home, though, I have become a reluctant treadmill user. It’s shockingly lovely where we live, and hiking is one of the very best ways to encounter the Berkshires. But home time is wife and kid time, and so I try to be efficient enough in my workdays at home that I have time to throw a ball with Drew or watch bad TV with Rachel. For the past two years, I’ve tried to schedule 1-2 hours a day of conference calls in the afternoon so I can drive to a nearby rail trail to walk and talk. (And yes, I certainly do see the irony of driving to walk. We live on a twisty mountain road where it’s just not especially safe to walk, and where it’s damned hard to carry on a conversation while trudging uphill.) When it’s too cold or rainy to walk outside, I’d tried a new trick – walking on the treadmill after Rachel went to bed, watching old episodes of LOST.

Rachel started using that treadmill – a noisy hand-me-down from friends – to walk while “syncing” in the morning (checking email, social media, etc.) and found that taking half an hour in the morning to do so made her happier for the rest of the day. I tried it and decided that, while I could sync and walk, I needed a desk for real work and a treadmill that was dramatically quieter if I was going to use it to walk and talk.

Last month, we took the plunge, and bought Lifespan’s TR-1200, which seems to be the entry-level walking desk treadmill of choice. (Lifespan makes cheaper treadmills, but this one is rated for several hours of use per day, and with the two of us sharing, it seemed a better option than the cheapest model.) Because Rachel and I are close in height, I was able to build in a desk that’s comfortable for both of us. I bought a new 27″ LCD monitor and a swing arm, repurposed an old desktop speaker set, and bought a remote control fan to mount on a ceiling beam behind the treadmill.

For the past month, we’ve each been using the desk about an hour a day when we’re in town. This week, working from home, I’m putting in closer to 3 hours each day and starting to get a sense for how the new setup does and doesn’t work for me. Some lessons learned:

- The right treadmill matters. I love the guys at Instructables, and I think their advice to “just do it” and build a walking desk around an existing treadmill is conceptually sound, but not practically possible for me. If you can comfortably hold a conference call on your existing treadmill, perhaps then this is a good idea. My hand-me-down treadmill squealed like a stuck pig, and the first step in moving to a standing desk was taking the plunge and making the purchase of the Lifespan treadmill.

- You don’t have to go all in. I’m not an absolutist. Some of the folks who write about switching to treadmill desks encourage you to go all in, moving your full office setup to the treadmill desk. As a road warrior, I don’t have a particularly robust desktop set up at home – I work outside under an umbrella if it’s nice, in front of the fire if it’s cold. The treadmill desk has become another locus for work, but I doubt it will ever become my only workplace.

- Match the task to the workplace. The desk is magical when I’m on conference calls. I can walk at 2.5 – 3mph and no one seems to notice. I get the occasional comment when on Skype or Google Hangout, as my head does bounce up and down, but no one has groused yet. (One Kenyan caller was surprised that he was reaching me at the gym, but that may have had as much to do with how I was dressed as my walking motion.) And, like Rachel, I find that checking email and social media is perfectly reasonable at 2 mph, though I sometimes slow to 1.5 mph to reply. Thus far, I wouldn’t move major writing, programming or reading onto the treadmill… and, for better or worse, I usually have enough conference calls and email to give me 2-3 hours on the treadmill, which is enough to get my 15,000 steps a day.

- Walking is great for combatting distraction. The tasks that work best on the treadmill for me are ones where I don’t need my full focus. When I sit at my desk during conference calls, I don’t pay close enough attention because I end up reading news in another tab. Walking seems to lessen the need to multitask. It may be that I know I’m doing something good for myself physically, or it might be that the little bit of effort it takes to keep the legs moving forward and keep the hands on the keyboard means I have less cognitive surplus to deal with. Amy Harmon, writing in the New York Times, speculates about this as well, pointing to a study by the Max Planck institute in which children and young adults performed better cognitively when walking at their preferred pace.

The moments where I notice this the most are when I’m answering email I don’t want to answer. At a desk, I flit from tab to tab, reading this, tweeting that. At the walking desk, I seem to be able to focus better, perhaps because I know I’m going to use the walking time as email time, then sit down to concentrate on something more engaging.

- Don’t be an idiot. There have been several posts questioning whether it’s possible to work efficiently while walking. This one, by Alyson Shontell, titled “The Truth About ‘Working’ On A Treadmill Desk, makes the experience sound like training for a marathon. At the end, she reveals that she wasn’t so much testing the walking desk as a work choice, but competing with a fellow Business Insider reporter who’d walked 17 miles the day before. I’m finishing this post on the treadmill, having walked 6 miles over 3 hours today, and that’s more than enough for me. Getting in an hour’s walk a day would be a good change for most people, while spending 8 hours walking probably isn’t good for anyone’s productivity.

I realize that hearing other people talk about their work and exercise regimes is roughly as interesting as hearing them talk about their dreams, but the walking desk really is one of the more exciting things in my life right now, and I’m not able to resist evangelizing.

Categories: Blog

Melodica Music: stepping back in time in downtown Nairobi

May 30, 2014 - 10:26am

I would be sad to return to the pre-internet days of music fandom. I think back to the days of paper fanzines with hazy nostalgia, but in truth, it was pretty wretched to hear about a band you might or might not like, order a 7″, wait weeks and discover that just because some dude with an exacto knife, glue stick and access to a xerox machine loved a band, it didn’t mean they were any good. I try to remember to be thankful every time I look up an unfamiliar band on AllMusic.com, when I surf a band’s back catalog on YouTube and buy CDs I would never have found without online retailers who stock the long tail of musical tastes.

That said, one casualty of the digital age is the demise of the local record store. I am blessed with an excellent local record store, Toonerville Trolley Records in Williamstown, MA, and I was thrilled to see a line of patrons waiting to get in to celebrate Record Store Day a few months back. (I took Drew to buy his first LP. Four and a half seems like the right age to start building a record collection.) But despite how fortunate I am in terms of local record shopping (both in Williamstown and in Cambridge, which has great stores like Weirdo and Armageddon), I feel the loss of the institution of the record store when I travel to different cities.

This past week, I was in Nairobi, Kenya, with Media Lab students, staff and faculty, working to build a partnership between the Lab and iHub, the remarkable tech incubator and coworking space built by the founders of Ushahidi. I wanted to make sure my Media Lab friends saw Nairobi for the wonderful, exciting city that it is, and I especially wanted to show Joseph Paradiso, the other lab faculty member on the trip, some different sides of the city. Joe is a celebrated builder of analog synthesizers and a massive prog rock fan, and while I knew finding music to suit his tastes in Nairobi might be a challenge, I figured a visit to a record store was in order.


Johnstone Mukabi and Peter Rugenye perform at the Melodica Music Store in Nairobi.

Visiting Melodica Records in Nairobi is as much pilgrimage as shopping excursion. The proprietor, Abdul Karim, has been managing the store since 1971. Located in Nairobi’s Central Business District, Melodica is part musical instrument shop, part performance space and part archive. It was quiet on the Saturday afternoon we came by, staffed by Karim, his mother and an assistant, and we were the only customers exploring the stacks.

Like many African music stores, Melodica burns CDs for customers rather than selling packaged CDs. (Teju Cole writes movingly in Every Day is For the Thief of finding John Coltrane CDs in a record store in Lagos, then discovering they are astronomically expensive to buy, as they are designed to be kept as the reference copy, parent of the copies for sale.) Joe immediately begins grilling the sales clerk, asking for the weirdest, most experimental music the shop stocks. The first track the clerk plays is Kanda Bongo Man’s “Zing Zong” – not exactly what Joe was looking for, but I recognize it immediately and shout out the title based on the opening notes. That earns me admission to the back room, packed with piles of dusty vinyl, and an invitation from Karim to use his turntable to listen and discover.


Joe asks what Congolese Rhumba bands sound the most like Can’s “Future Days”

Melodica dates from the days when African record stores weren’t just selling a product – they were recording studios, producers, distributors and retailers. Many of the records Karim hands me are ones on the Melodica label, which he produced in the 1970s. As I’m picking through a stack of dusty Luo ballads, looking for Lingala dance music, Karim explains that musicians would travel with reel to reel masters from Kinshasa or Brazzaville to Nairobi to press their work and bring it to audiences throughout central Africa.

The production on the records varies widely. Some were originally recorded badly, and the saturated tape leads to gnarly, distorted records despite Karim’s engineering efforts. Others have the wide-open, echoey sound that’s characteristic of my favorite Congolese music, a sound that somehow evokes both all-night, outdoor dance clubs and distant vistas. Karim and I talk about what types of records I like and he does his best to find records that feature organ and synth crossing into traditional song structure, the local parallels to styles like Afrojuju in Nigeria (my genre of choice.)


The back room at Melodica

I note a promising album propped up on the studio window, the scratched plexiglass producers once sat behind to offer hand signals to the band recording in what’s now the store’s main space. It’s “Mandingo” by Black Blood and Karim explains that he can’t sell me the album as it is his sole remaining copy, but urges me to download tracks from it from the store’s website. Karim’s role is at least as much preservationist as proprietor these days. A search for “Black Blood” on Afro7, a site dedicated to East African vinyl, offers the clue that Black Blood was a group of expatriate Kenyans playing in Brussels, but there’s little else about them online. Karim’s copy is surely not the sole one extant, but it’s one likely to ensure that a funky, ferocious band survives another generation.

Crate-digging, the art and science of searching for rare grooves in record stories, antique shops and yard sales, is a celebrated, if controversial, practice. Classic hiphop was built on the art of the sample, and the more obscure the sample you could find, the better. (Afrika Bambaata had notoriously deep crates, and was legendary for soaking the labels off his hottest breaks and replacing them with other labels to throw rival DJs off.) After a successful lawsuit by George Clinton’s publisher, Bridgeport Music, established a precedent that any sample, identifiable or not, would merit royalty payments, mainstream hiphop moved away from the world of crate-digging… but the best DJs didn’t.

Recently, DJs like Diplo have built their reputation on finding inspiration in global dance sounds from musical cultures unfamiliar to North America and Europe. (I discuss Diplo’s work at some length in Rewire.) German DJ Frank Gossner has established himself as an “archaeologist” of African vinyl, making multiple trips throughout the region to find rare grooves he can throw into his dance sets. This practice has its critics – DJ Boima Tucker draws parallels between the search for undiscovered African vinyl to the quest by colonial powers for natural resources in Africa, while allowing that these records may simply disappear if someone doesn’t rescue them from obscurity. (A comment by Gossner on Tucker’s post gives you a sense of just how nasty these conversations can get when one DJ accuses another of colonialism…)

Visiting Melodica gives a certain perspective to the crate-digging versus preservation conversation. I didn’t exactly have to fight off an army of European and American DJs desperate to throw some vintage Congolese rumba into their sets. And Karim is hardly a naïf, unaware of the treasures in his store. Instead, he’s acutely aware that the work he’s doing to preserve the music he grew up with requires this music to find new and broader audiences.

Joe and I each buy half a dozen compilation CDs featuring 7″ singles of taraab, rhumba, and afrorock that Karim has digitized. His assistant burns the CDs for us and prints fresh covers for the CDs – it’s hard to believe the roughly $1.20 we pay for each CD pays for more than the disc and the printout. I choose four of the records I most enjoyed and Karim apologizes before charging me $6 for each, explaining that his stocks are slowly dwindling for the old vinyl.


Abdul Karim shows off the reason to come to Melodica – a wealth of historical 7-inches in the place where some were recorded and mastered.

That evening, I had dinner with some of the members of Just a Band, one of Kenya’s most exciting artistic collectives – the group includes filmmakers as well as musicians, and they are at the center of a scene that includes designers and installation artists as well. One of the filmmakers listens to my story about Melodica and says, “I’ve been meaning to do a film about that place.” I hope he will: Kenya’s music scene has a rich past and a promising future. It would be great to see the next generation honoring such a historic treasure.

Kentanzavinyl has a great database of the sorts of artists I found at Melodica, as well as a good blogroll of African record collectors, many of whom post digitized audio from their finds.

Melodica is in the Elimu Co-op House, across the street from KTDA on Tom Mboya Street. Abdul Karim is always happy when fans of east African music visit.

Special bonus tracks:


“A.I.E. A Mwana” by Black Blood


“Africans Must Unite”, by Geraldo Pino, one of the 7″ I bought at Melodica

Categories: Blog

When Being Happy is Political

May 21, 2014 - 9:29am

The Atlantic was kind enough to run a lightly edited version of this post. I’m posting here after their publication so that this remains in my archives.

Pharrell Williams is a happy man, but he’s crying. He’s one of the most in-demand record producers in the world, and had a hand in the two hottest songs of 2013, “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk and “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke. While those songs were inescapable on radio and television last summer, Pharrell’s most recent hit, “Happy”, has taken a different path to prominence.

French director Yoann Lemoine and production team We Are From LA worked with Pharrell to create a unique video for “Happy”. The video is 24 hours long, and was shot all across Los Angeles, featuring dozens of celebrity cameos interspersed amongst shot after shot of people dancing happily. It took 11 days to shoot the video, though many of the shots were single takes. The video follows the course of the day in LA, with footage from dawn to dusk and through the night, with Pharrell appearing each hour.


The original “Happy” video

The video quickly spawned thousands of fan remakes, featuring workplaces, business schools, college dorms who are all happy. Faced with a viral hit, Pharrell’s label, Columbia Records/Sony Music, has turned a blind eye to possible copyright violations, and one can easily spend hours on YouTube flipping from one fanvid to the next.

There’s a special subcategory of these videos that I think of as “georemixes”. The georemix builds on the idea that the original “Happy” video is a love letter to Los Angeles, a portrait of the city’s architecture, landscapes, people and spirit, and moves the party to a new location. More than a thousand georemixes of “Happy” exist, and they portray happy people on all six continents.


Pharrell, on Oprah, crying over “Happy”

Pharrell is on Oprah, watching a compilation of these remixes that bring his song around the world, from Detroit to Dakar. In the 30 seconds of the video Oprah shows, we catch glimpses of happy Taiwanese women on a spa day, Icelanders dancing on a glacier and Londoners strutting with Big Ben in the background. Pharrell’s reaction is the one many of us have had to the remixes of his video: he cries for a long time, overwhelmed not only by his success but by the experience of watching a simple idea – film yourself being happy – as it spreads around the world.

“Happy” is not the first video that’s been georemixed. Last summer, I gave a talk at the MIT8 conference focused on remixes of PSY’s Gangnam Style and Baauer’s Harlem Shake. In researching these localized remixes, my students pointed me to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’s “Empire State of Mind”, remixed in remarkable fashion into “Newport State of Mind”, by comics M-J Delaney, Alex Warren and Terema Wainwright. (The parody was further parodied by Welsh rappers Goldie Looking Chain, who complained that the Newport parodiers lacked local knowledge and cred.)


The original “Empire State of Mind”


“Newport (Ymerodraeth State of Mind)”

The georemix dates back at least as early as 2005, when Lazy Sunday, produced by The Lonely Island (Saturday Night Live’s Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg) was remixed into parodies like Lazy Muncie, showing midwest pride, and Lazy Ramadi, which replaces a search for cupcakes with a confrontation with Iraqi insurgents.


Lazy Munzie


Lazy Ramadi

The Lazy Sunday georemix was born out of a mock East Coast/West Coast rap beef, which quickly set the tone for georemix videos. Each response is a retelling of the core story, transposed to a new location, bragging about local landmarks and habits. While the braggadocio in these remixes is pure parody, there’s a sense in which each of these videos makes a claim to share the stage with the original. YouTube’s related videos feature means that there’s a chance that some of the 2 billion viewers of PSY’s Gangnam Style video will encounter Zigi’s “Ghana Style”, a georemix that relocates Seoul to Accra and replaces PSY’s horse dance with Ghanaian Azonto. (And if not through YouTube, viewers may encounter Zigi through the hundreds of listicles that advertise “10 Best Gangnam Style Parodies”)


Zigi’s Azonto version of Gangnam Style

I think of the georemix as a claim to attention, a way of demanding part of the spotlight that shines on a popular video. It’s a very basic demand: accept that we’re part of this phenomenon, too. In remixing Gangnam Style, Zigi sends the message that Ghana has YouTube, is clued into global cultural trends, has its own distinct sound and dance style to share with the world, and can produce videos as technically proficient as anything coming from other corners of the world. To me, “Ghana Style” reads both as lighthearted celebration of a catchy tune that truly went global, and a political statement about a world where culture can spread from South Korea to Ghana to the US, not just from the US and Europe to the rest of the world.

Of course, the georemix can also be purely political. Ai Wei Wei’s Gangnam style, titled Grass Mud Horse Style, moves the dance into his studio in Beijing and is filmed almost entirely within the walls of that compound, alluding perhaps to the artist’s frequent arrests and detentions. (If the location doesn’t set the theme, his appearance a minute into the video, spinning handcuffs certainly does.) Other georemixes take on specific issues explicitly. Consider Dig Grave Style, a protest video made by students from China’s Henan province, in which dancers rise from the earth to protest the moving of graves from villages to open land for real estate development.


Dig Grave Style

Remixing a video is a shortcut to creating original content. The script is partially written – the creativity comes from changing the lyrics and the setting. The popularity of the Harlem Shake meme (which was georemixed around the world, and saw political georemixes in Tunis and Cairo) came in part from the extremely low levels of effort required to participate in the phenomenon – simply film people behaving in an ordinary way, then dancing like madmen in strange costumes and you’ve got your localized Harlem Shake.

“Happy” benefits from this low barrier to entry. There are Happy remixes that function as shot-by-shot remakes of the short, official Pharrell video, and there are vastly more that adopt the spirit of the video and transpose it to a local context.

Loïc Fontaine and Julie Fersing deserve much of the credit for the georemixes that made Pharrell cry, though neither has made a video. Fersing, an interior designer in Nantes, began collecting georemixes of “Happy”, searching YouTube to find new material. When she’d located 21 of the videos, she turned to her husband, Fontaine, who’d begun a career in website development nine months earlier. Together, they launched We Are Happy From, a portal that now hosts 1682 videos from 143 countries.

We Are Happy From front page

Once the site had attracted about 50 remixes, Fontaine contacted the We Are From LA production team, who gave the project their blessing. While Fontaine had not spoken to Pharrell when I interviewed him a month ago, he felt quite confident that the project was consistent with the artist’s wishes and would survive, pointing out that Sony had not taken action to remove the vast majority of remix and parody videos posted online. Indeed, the success of the song has likely had a great deal to do with the widespread participation online, giving “Happy” an online life and prominence that no amount of radio payola could provide. (Pharrell has embraced the notion of the georemix, urging people around the world to produce their versions of the video as part of a UN-sponsored International Day of Happiness.)

We Are Happy From is simply an index, pointing to videos hosted on YouTube, Daily Motion and other platforms. While the videos have a consistent look, usually opening with a black on yellow title screen (as Pharrell’s video does), Fontaine doesn’t provide any production help or guidelines. Still, the videomakers are clearly conscious of We Are Happy From’s role in promoting “Happy” videos as a global form, as many videos feature a screencap of the We Are Happy From map.

While anyone can submit a video to We Are Happy From, not all videos appear on the map. Fersing is the curator, and she watches all videos before adding them to the map. (As of April, the couple were receiving 20-40 videos a day.) Videos that are overly commercial or connected to political or social causes don’t make the cut. Fontaine explained that some French political parties produced Happy videos as campaign materials – We Are Happy From chose not to feature those videos. An Italian version of Happy with an environmental message was also not included, nor was Porto (un)Happy, which features activists dancing through unfinished construction sites in Porto Allegre, Brazil, along with subtitles that critique government spending on public works projects. (Manaus is unhappy as well.)

I asked Fontaine why he and his wife had chosen to become active curators of the project. It was a practical decision, Fontaine explained: “They say it’s black, someone else says it’s white. How am I to judge?” Rather than evaluating the validity of political claims, he would rather focus on what he sees as the core message of these remixes: “We Are Happy From is purely about the happiness. We just want to show a simple message about being happy about where we live.”

For me, as a student of civic media, the dissident videos excluded from the We Are Happy Map are the most interesting ones. Fontaine has kindly shared the list of rejected videos with me, and I hope to spend some time this summer watching those 500 remixes in the hopes of developing an understanding of how “Happy” can work as a script for advocacy (or how videomakers think it might act as that script.) But for Fontaine and his wife, the mark of success wasn’t raising awareness for a cause or an issue – it was documenting the spread of happiness globally. When I interviewed Fontaine, he was celebrating the spread of “Happy” to Antarctica, with a video from French research station Dumont d’Urville.

The 1600 videos on We Are Happy From may not advocate for a political party or a cause, but they are “political”. When the residents of Toliara, Madagascar make their version of “Happy”, they’re making a statement that they’re part of the same media environment, part of the same culture, part of the same world as Pharrell’s LA. This assertion isn’t quite as anodyne as Disney’s “Small World After All” or the “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” campaign. Even with Fontaine and Fersing’s curation, we get distinct glimpses of how different it can be to be happy in different corners of the world: Happy in Damman, Saudi Arabia features wonderfully goofy men, but not a single woman. Beijing is happy, but profoundly crowded and hazy – intentionally or not, the video is a statement about air pollution as well as about a modern, cosmopolitan city.

A few weeks ago, We Are Happy From added a video from Tehran, Iran to the map. If you don’t know where the video is from, it’s unremarkable. A dozen twenty-somethings, men and women, dance on a rooftop, wear silly outfits, and wave their legs while lying on a bed. It’s remarkable only if you know that women in Iran are forbidden to appear in public without their hair covered and that men and women are prohibited from dancing together in public.


Happy in Tehran

Given context, the video is an incredibly brave statement. The young women in the video covered their own hair with wigs, keeping themselves technically in line with local Islamic law, and kept clothing around so they could cover up if seen from neighboring buildings. One of the videos stars, identified only as Neda, said, “We were really afraid. Whenever somebody looked out of a window or someone passed by, we ducked behind a door to make sure we were not seen.”


The makers of the video, forced to apologize on state television

Neda and her compatriots were right to be afraid. Six people involved with making the video were arrested and forced to appear on state television, testifying that they were tricked and duped into making the video. It is unclear what consequences the filmmakers will suffer beyond public humiliation, and a hashtag, #FreeHappyIranians is emerging to protest their detention. Pharrell, to his credit, has tried to call attention to the situation:

It's beyond sad these kids were arrested for trying to spread happiness http://t.co/XV1VAAJeYI

— Pharrell Williams (@Pharrell) May 21, 2014

It’s clear from Neda’s interview with Iran Wire that the intention behind the video is precisely Fontaine and Fersing’s intention. ““We wanted to tell the world that the Iranian capital is full of lively young people and change the harsh and rough image that the world sees on the news.” They chose a middle-class Tehran home to make the point that ordinary Iranians, not just the elite, were happy, creative, modern and globally engaged. And the video, with subtitles and credits in English, was clearly created for a global audience, designed to be part of the International Day of Happiness, though it was turned in too late for inclusion: “We want to tell the world that Iran is a better place than what they think it is. Despite all the pressures and limitations, young people are joyful and want to make the situation better. They know how to have fun, like the rest of the world.”

Perhaps a video that asserts that you and your friends are part of the wider world is political only if your nation has consciously withdrawn from that world. Perhaps it’s political any time your city, your country and your culture are misunderstood or ignored by the rest of the world. We Are Happy From is cultural politics in the best sense of the word, a good-natured assertion that what brings us together is more important than what divides us. That the Tehran video has led Pharrell to a different type of tears is a reminder of how powerful and threatening this sort of statement can be.

Categories: Blog

Monithon and Monitorial Citizenship in Italy

May 19, 2014 - 7:12am

Three years into my time at MIT, I’m trying to get back into the habit of blogging, something that was a near-daily habit for me during the years I was at Berkman. For me, blogging is a fairly selfish activity. If I write something helpful for you, that’s a happy accident. I write because it allows me to get ideas straight in my head, and because it helps me find other people working on similar problems.

In “The Power of Pull”, John Hagel and John Seely Brown argue that in information-saturated societies, one way to navigate information overload is to pull resources and people towards you, announcing the connections you need and drawing them towards you. It sounds both new-agey and privileged, and it’s a strategy that is surely easier to implement if you are in a position of power and authority where you can expect to be heard when you ask for help. But it’s also a strategy that often works, and in surprising and unexpected ways.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the idea of monitorial citizenship and the work my students and I are doing on the topic in Brazil, where we are prototyping our Promise Tracker tool. Luigi Reggi, co-founder of Monithon, an Italian citizen monitoring project, read the article and contacted me, and two weeks ago, we met in Perugia, where we were both attending the International Journalism Festival.

The Monithon team shows off their website in a cafe in Perugia

The name “Monithon” is a contraction of “Monitoring Marathon”, a working method Reggi and colleagues were demonstrating in Perugia. They’d assembled a small group of concerned citizens and taught them how to identify a local project supported through EU funds and how to evaluate its success. In Perugia, the team examined a web portal that allowed citizens to compare the performance of local internet service providers. While the tool worked reasonably well, fewer than a hundred people had used it in the year it was online, leading the monitors to conclude that it was a partial success, at best, as a use of EU funds. They posted a detailed report, which included suggestions for ways the project could be improved. The report is accessible on the Monithon site and linked to an map of the country (made using Ushahidi), which shows all completed monitoring efforts.

Reggi and colleagues found the project in Perugia through OpenCoesione, a government-initiated open data portal that (quite beautifully) visualizes spending of €99 billion on over 700,000 projects in Italy. Reggi works for the ministry of development and cohesion, which oversees these funds, and while he believes every country will end up building transparency sites like OpenCoesione, he also believes that open data is not enough. With a small team of dedicated volunteers, entirely outside of his time working for the government, Reggi is building a method that will allow citizens to evaluate each of the projects paid for with EU funds.

Open Cohesion website

Some of the projects are carried out by the Monithon core team. Two team members from Bari have been monitoring projects associated with a new train that connects the center city and the airport, identifying issues with the train’s timetable that makes it difficult for commuters to use. Other projects are carried out by established citizen groups, like Libera, a national anti-Mafia association, who became Monithon’s partner in Naples, focusing their monitoring on the rehabilitation of seized Mafia properties. In Palermo, an existing group of transport activists are using the Monithon methodology, while in Calabria and Tornio, new groups have formed to begin monitoring projects using the Monithon method.

This is one of the similarities I see between the work Monithon is doing and work we’re hoping to do in São Paulo: partnership with existing civic groups. Our partner in São Paulo on Promise Tracker is Rede Nossa São Paulo, a network of existing citizen organizations who focus on tackling a wide range of local civic issues. We believe citizens will be most effective in monitoring issues they already care and know about, so we’re trying to help existing citizen groups find promises Mayor Haddad has made that are in their areas of interest and expertise, hoping we’ll identify groups eventually willing to take on the government’s 123 promises.

Monithon map of completed projects, and the Umarell

Another alignment is around the concept of monitory citizenship. The Monithon team is shaping their work around the broader idea of monitoring as a form of participatory citizenship. Their logo features an Umarell, an affectionate term from Bologna to describe older men who spend their time watching – and commenting on – public works and other activities in their communities. Embracing the idea of the good-natured, loveable busybody, part of Monithon’s goal is to train new generations of monitors, more digitally-connected than the umarells, but motivated by the same mix of curiosity and public interest. Part of this effort is the Open Cohesion School (A Scuola di OpenCoesione), which offers five lessons on monitoring projects using the open data released by Reggi’s ministry. Through the school and through Monithon, Reggi and colleagues are now working with 17 year old high school students to identify and monitor local projects, contributing to the data set and helping the students understand the processes behind the EU funds, their dispersal and their impacts on local communities. High school students are often a major part of the teams who show up at “open data days”, which have drawn as many as 250 to come work together on monitoring projects.

I think the decision to work with high school students is a stroke of genius, and hope that funders will take note and support this aspect of the work in particular. (For now, the project is completely volunteer-driven and has no financial support. Reggi jokes that he may try to support it by selling t-shirts or other umarell-branded merchandise.) Part of my interest in this space is around a question my colleague Erhardt Graeff is interested in: how should we teach civics in a digital age to high school students? Teaching them to identify government projects in their communities and evaluate their success looks like a pretty good start.

I also suspect that a surprising outcome of these monitoring efforts may be increased enthusiasm for EU spending. It’s easy to condemn government spending in the abstract – it’s possible that examining projects and finding them sometimes flawed, but well intended, may lead to more nuanced debate about EU cohesion funds and support for the European Parliament more broadly.

Antonella Napolitano interviewed me and Reggi about Monithon in Perugia, and rightly asked whether citizen monitoring is becoming a mainstream phenomenon. Reggi was clear that it’s not yet – the people involved with Monithon are clearly civics geeks and the folks they’ve been able to bring into the cause. But it’s possible that the Monithon method could bring hundreds or thousands more volunteers to the table.

As I learn more about the citizen monitoring space, I’m finding other inspiring projects like Social Cops, an Indian social monitoring project, that’s brought thousands of participants into projects like monitoring garbage pickup using mobile phones. While Monithon focuses on single projects and on suggesting solutions to imperfect projects, Social Cops leverages network effects, using hundreds or thousands of reports to identify systems that aren’t working well and demanding accountability. I suspect there’s a sweet spot for projects that both leverages networks and asks people to solve problems, not just collect data.

Categories: Blog

Two talks, no waiting

May 16, 2014 - 11:38am

It was a great honor to win the Zocalo Public Square book prize for Rewire… and I’ve understood the honor more deeply as I’ve gotten to know the thoughtful work the Zocalo crew puts together every day on their site and their newswire. They’re doing important work sharing stories about connections between people in the physical and virtual worlds, opening conversations about how we want our communities to work, and bringing people together for events and conversations.

Speaking at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art last Friday gave me the personal experience of worlds coming together. Friends from different corners of my life came out to see me – classmates from Williams, former volunteers from my Geekcorps days, friends from the internet and social change community and the internet studies world, and wonderfully, a friend I’d not seen since 1988 when we spent a high school summer together at Cornell at a program of the Telluride Association.

Maybe it was Zocalo’s kindness – they published an excerpt of my book, reactions to some of the questions I address from other scholars, as well as inviting me to speak – or the incredible warmth of old friends in the room, but I had a terrific time introducing the book and answering questions about Rewire and the research that surrounds it. Zocalo offers a video of the talk – embedded above – as well as a podcast, should you wish to listen without the uncomfortable sight of me in a suit for 50 minutes. Or you could read their excellent summary of the talk and following Q&A. I believe, at some point, they’ll be publishing a “green room” Q&A with me, which includes me discussing strategies for self-defense in the case of zombie attack.

A few weeks earlier, I had the chance to consider some of the questions I address in Rewire from a different perspective. Colleagues Rodrigo Davies, Helena Puig Larrauri and others organized the Build Peace Summit at the MIT Media Lab, an event that explored ways in which technology might allow people to approach long-standing conflicts and build peace using technology. My talk there was somewhat skeptical, given some of the challenges I’ve seen using web technologies to insulate ourselves instead of building connections. Skepticism aside, I looked for a few hopeful examples I’ve seen of people confronting hateful speech in online spaces and building connections across cultural barriers. That talk is newly online as well, embedded below, for anyone who really needs a double dose of my public speaking this weekend. (If you’re a member of that set, allow me to suggest that there are many better things you could be doing with your life.)

Thanks to the hosts at both events.

Categories: Blog

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