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The MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics (YPP) formed out of recognition that youth are critical to the future of democracy and that the digital age is introducing technological changes that are impacting how youth develop into informed, engaged, and effective actors.

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Mapping the Electorate - Liveblog from #PoliticalAnalytics2016

April 1, 2016 - 8:40am

From the #PoliticalAnalytics2016 website: Political Analytics is a one-day conference at Harvard University featuring top minds from media, politics, and academics. We are starting an exciting conversation about the growing role of data and analytics in determining the winners and losers in politics. Our goal is to promote new methods, technology, and discussions for the improved analysis of politics.

Speaker bios from the #PoliticalAnalytics2016 website:


Kirk Goldsberry is a sport and political geographer and writer specializing in spatial reasoning, visual communication and representation. He was a visiting scholar at Harvard University and a staff writer at Grantland.


Amanda Cox is an editor for The Upshot and is an expert in visual journalism involving graphics, interactives, and other multimedia on web platforms. Her work has vastly improved the reader experience for The New York Times to follow election returns and election coverage.


Karl Gude is a professor for the School of Journalism at Michigan State University. He has an extensive background in information graphics, working in the field for news outlets such as Newsweek, The Associated Press, and The National Sports Daily. He is currently spearheading the first information-graphics program at MSU.


Andrei Scheinkman is a director of data and technology and a deputy editor for FiveThirtyEight. He has worked for The Huffington Post and The New York Times and is an expert in developing data-driven interactive features for online publications.


Kirk introduces the panelists and asks Karl to lead things off. Karl shows a scene from an old United Press International newsroom in the 1970s. He started as a cartoonist and shows a picture of his desk while he was covering the Reagan campaign.


Image of Karl's desk in 1979.

He shows the base maps that they used at the time. They would cut everything out and hand pattern it and then photograph it. When you went to print you would wrap it around a drum and convert the graphic to pulses which would interpret them to information that could be sent around the wire. Then they made a small improvement to the fax machine instead of the drum. Finally, they moved to an early Apple computer. But even when the photos were high-resolution they had to be transmitted via fax or drum.

He moved to work at the Associated Press and tried to get people to use Apple computers but the older people refused. The younger people did adapt to it. In 1988, he covered the elections with an Apple computer in his backpack.


Graphic by Karl from 1988.


Now they produced better graphics that could be transmitted via modems. They had better basemaps. He moved on to graphics at Newsweek. They had a nice staff and that's when mapping really grew up. He wanted to build things for the web but they were told that that would have to be for their personal time. He offers that that might be a reason that Newsweek went out of business.


He's now teaching graphics at Michigan State University and shows some of the complex, modern maps that his students have been making.


Map by a student of Karl's.


Kirk notes that the medium is always a character in this process of mapping the election. Now that we have computation at our fingertips, things have really changed.


Amanda shows one of the favorite maps of people at the New York Times. The reason they like this map is because it's high resolution (maps precincts) but also lets you filter by income. Another reason they like this map is that users picked it up to do other things like see who voted for which mayors in unplowed areas during a snowstorm.



The Mayoral Primaries, an interactive by the New York Times in 2013.


She shows how maps reveal patterns. What look like electoral patterns now - such as a crescent shape of voting patterns across the South - are also maps of cotton production 100 years ago and are also maps of where the coast was prior to that so the soil was rich for production of cotton.


Kirk transitions to Andrei from 538.


Andrei oversees graphics at 538. They use that term broadly. They have a staff of 8 people who have experience in design, data, mapping and more. He shows an image from 538:

The Facebook Primary, a project by fivethirtyeight.


They worked with Facebook to get data from the primaries. They started looking for patterns for what people were sharing on Facebook in regards to the elections. For example, if you turn on Cruz you see that people in Texas support him. But they found the most interesting results at the local level. If you click into Austin, TX, you see very granular data at the zip code level.


Here the point is about the map as an interface to let you drill down into the data.


Kirk states - That's a real shift right? When Karl was working you knew the story. But in this day and age you don't necessarily know all the stories in your own data. You can give people the Choose Your Own Adventure but there is still a story to tell. He asks Amanda to describe the Times' wind map.


Amanda describes her role on the map that shows county-level change over time as wind. She says it works as an impressionistic map of change in political leaning.


Map at the New York Times, 2012.


Kirk asks - How do you blend mapping and storytelling and where do you see it going, particularly on mobile?


Andrei - What is hard is making this work in 3 inches of screen real estate. There's a lot of technical work that has to go into it. We balance exploration and storytelling by giving people some scenarios and interesting maps that are in the data. So you present them with curated stories that come from the data. That was something we couldn't replicate on mobile.


Amanda - Some of our mappers are better at this. Navigational maps have taught people the basic things about mapping. The interesting things are less about how I scale this and more about how we interpret things. There is lower hanging fruit. I often enjoy the mobile version more because it forces us to be better editors.


Kirk says he tries to teach students about choropleth and other thematic maps that can try to show more of the nuance and complexity of geographic patterns. He asks - "How can we be better about maps? How do you guys approach the day after the election?"


Amanda - She says their favorite new trick is mapping how votes come in live. But the general thing is to try to explain why something happened. How do we understand that?


Karl - The audience day after will be wondering who their neighbors voted for. We are leaving people behind who don't like interactive experiences, who don't appreciate data. A challenge down the road is how to include the great percentage of Americans who are not as engaged. His audience has always been the small guys, the audience in Helena, MT. They are not as well-informed. Are they being left behind? Does this all come down to storytelling? Rolling over things is not the same as storytelling. A bunch of data coming up on a hover might mean nothing to them. Maps are beautiful and wonderful but people have to find these interactive things and seek them out.


Audience Questions


Laura Amico - Where do you see stories not being identified? What about editing?


Karl - As news producers we make a lot of assumptions about the readers. Just showign a graphic - it's often missing context. There's an assumption that readers will always be able to understand the context, why we are showing you this. Beginning, middle, end. Cause and effect. Showign the storyline is really important as part of the graphic. They can often confuse more than offer clarity.


Professor - A question related to drilling down. How many people are actually drilling down? Do you track that?


Andrei - Just looking at how many people come to a thing is not enough. We do track how people interact with our projects. Maps are pretty high in number of interactions and in time on page. Average is 3-5 minute range which we think means they are interacting with it in depth.


Audience - Question about AZ primary. Decreased precinct locations. If you could use maps to determine where polling locations should be how would you do that?


Amanda - Great question. I would try to make a model for where people live and the time of day they are likely to vote.


Audience - What fields outside politics inspire you the most?


Andrei - We do a lot of sports and mapping around sports. Kirk did maps about the intersection of sports and culture and the geography of fandom. Our economics writers do a lot of graphics. What subjects that we cover have geo data available?


Amanda - The foreign coverage is the natural home for NYT maps and the data isn't as substantive. Geography really still matters.


Karl - I like looking at Buzzfeed and seeing what the young people put out there. Seeing what younger people make for each other is always very inspirational. The fringe folks doing these crazy things and they are fun and engaging. There are ways to connect with different audiences.


Kirk - There are incredible datasets out there behind locked doors - at Google, Facebook, and so on. Occasionally we get a peek into them. But there is an incredible thing going on where these platforms are harvesting all this data and they don't share this data. That's what I want to see more of.


Andrei - Us too. We tried really hard to get Facebook to share more stuff - about ads, about interactions - and they have a lot of concerns about protecting user privacy but also about protecting their business.


Kirk - There are good reasons they are not sharing but I wish we could meet halfway.


Audience - Could you talk about the population distribution problem? Are any alternative formats


Andrei - Josh from Govtrack made a critique of 538 and said you should only use cartograms in order to demonstrate the population. I feel like that underestimates your audience. When you do cartograms there is a place for that. But they are complicated. But geographic maps are more readble.

Kirk - We tried to build a congruent depiction of whatever world we are trying to map. Often we are time to map the electoral college, not the American country.

Karl - There's a lot of free stuff out there for generating maps. There is not one for cartograms.

Audience - What are the tools now for doing this?

Andrei - We use a lot. QGIS, R, d3.js, HTML/CSS, Python.

Karl - Plug-in for Adobe Illustrator called Map Publisher. Adds a maps tab to illustrator and it will generate the map. Stays continually linked to the data. Great for basemaps.

Amanda - What Andrei said. NYT code on top of d3, a Javascript library written by Mike Bostock.

Categories: Blog

Lara Baladi: Vox Populi, Archiving a Revolution in the Digital Age

March 31, 2016 - 8:25am

Lara Baladi introduces us to her project "Archiving a Revolution", which documents the story of the Tahrir Squre protests. Developing over several years, Baladi has transformed her visual archive into a several projects, including an art installation.

Baladi introduces her project, "Archiving a Revolution," as crossing disciplinary boundaries. It comes at a poignant time, as the Egyptian revolution begins to be erased. Baladi is a visual artist by trade, and she spends a lot of time curating visual archives as part of her projects though  working across disciplines and mediums in her projects. Tahrir square and the revolution is a project that is very close to Baladi's heart, having herself taken part in the protest and seen the power of the grassroots videos that were shared. 

She shows us "Tiananmen Courage Cairo", (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NwYT_MLlv-g) the first video of the protests to go viral in 2011. After watching the video, Baladi says that she felt at that moment that she knew everything was about to change. She immediately signed up to different social media networks, having before been more interested in working on the streets. Facebook became almost as interesting as the revolution itself to Baladi, and both became the sources for her project. Baladi spoke of how she became aware of her own positioning as a media maker within a dictatorship, as the pace suddenly changed with the break out of the revolution and media makers across Cairo became unleashed in their creativity. Baladi spent time collecting the various media, from grafitti to tweets, that the protestors had been galvanised into making. 

After a speech by Jean-Paul Sartre echoed the words she had heard the day before from a protestor in Tahrir, Baladi realised her interest in the relationship between time and space and movements. Where the collecting began as an emotive and impulsive desire to archive, it gradually turned into a more structured process as the protest in Tahrir Square grew and changed. 

As soon as the Tahrir protest begun, a media tent was set up in the middle of the mass of tents occupying the square. However, with internet capabilities down, links to the mainstream press were tenuous. Yet, the media tent made efforts to disperse information through global networks, and the documentation through these channels made Baladi think of the protest in terms of a global rather than singularly Egyptian history. Baladi points to the different trends in journalism and media, oscillating between top-down and citizen driven coverage. She notes the Iraq War and 9/11 as pivotal points in the growing documentation from the grassroots, even before social media. In terms of Tahrir, Baladi recalls that the distinction between online and offline worlds seemed to fade, and the digital documentation of the protest became an essential part of the movement. 

Baladi's archive aimed to connect the questions that were being raised every day in the midst of the revolution to a global wealth of material. Baladi's first project with her archives was a daily open-air cinema, which gathered activists to share stories and discuss the revolution. The project would give away the archive material to those who gathered to further share with their friends, families and communities. Baladi also made a visual essay which examines the notion of freedom, using Tahrir Square as a way to examine the bigger questions of the human desire for freedom. A clip shows a segment from the Disney animation of Alice in Wonderland, the caterpillar blowing smoke rings around Alice as he asks, "Who are you?". On either side are long shots of the square, showing the sheer scale of the protest. The essay blends these images, using footage from the revolution among clips from Charlie Chaplin's The Dictator, Slavoj Zizek interviews, and footage of Malcolm X. The combination of images, cultures and languages creates an emotive polemic that positions the protest in the square within a larger trajectory of human struggles for emancipation. 

After the visual essay, Baladi became fascinated with how her archive functioned as only a fraction of what was being recorded. The act of archiving itself became politically weighted in the context of a regime that was destroyed museums and erasing history. The role of the internet, too, as displacing past materials for the present, encouraged Baladi to create a broader archival project, to preserve, map and trace the documentation that had been produced. 

Baladi shows us the map of her interactive art installation, which features a VR sculpture and three periods of film which represent the chronological stages of the revolution. Interspersed are film projects Baladi has made, including one piece on the role of women  and their representation within the revolution. The central piece is a metal sculpture of a 17th Century chastity belt, which Baladi recalls she made in Cairo during the Muslim Brotherhood rule. When Baladi first exhibited the belt in Tahrir, the city was taken down by an attack on the protestors by the state.

For the exhibition, Baladi is also creating a scold with VR lenses. The scold is also based on a 17th Century design which was used to keep women quiet. The piece Baladi is building hopes to contrast what you can see through the VR lenses to the mechanism you are in, highlighting the power of freedom of speech. Baladi says the relationship between lo and hi tech is a key part of her work, evoking empathy across identities. The timeline will also be evoked through a layered data visualisation. 

Showing us the website which serves as the landing base for the archives several projects, VoxPopuli (http://tahrirarchives.com/), Baladi closes with a video of her project "Notes from El Saniyya," an art installation at the Harvard School of Design in 2015. Using projections, popcorn, coffee, cushions and rugs, the installation recreated the atmosphere of Tahrir square. In many ways, Baladi concludes, it can be seen as a a first iteration of the archive timeline as affect space, and a predecessor to her current project. She hopes to retain the sense of potentiality from the Tahrir Square where, in that moment, utopia really existed as a possibility. 

Lara Baladi's work will be exhibited in an open house on 23rd April.


"Lara Baladi is an internationally recognized multi-disciplinary Egyptian-Lebanese artist. As a Fellow at the MIT Open Documentary Lab in the 2014-15 academic year, Baladi conducted research for a transmedia project, Vox Populi, Archiving a Revolution in the Digital Age. As the Ida Ely Rubin Artist in Residence at CAST, she will realize the multi-layered Vox Populi project, which she envisions as an interactive timeline of the Egyptian revolution and its aftermath in the form of an immersive installation. Baladi says the work is 'a tribute to the 2011 Egyptian revolution and its impact on and resonance with the uprisings and sociopolitical movements that followed.'”

Categories: Blog

When the church says recycle, you recycle

March 29, 2016 - 3:45pm

Lebanon has been suffering a garbage crisis for the past nine months, and people are living within piles of garbage - literally - and the ruling elite does not seem that enthusiastic to resolve the situation. The problem reflects the lack of infrastructure in the country and the crippling of local decision making where executive decisions need to pass by a parliament that is more interested in economic gain for its members than the public good. The bright side is that this crisis has created pockets of unprecedented civil society movements that are not dependent on hegemonic powers of political leaders. These initiatives have short life spans due to the lack of experience in undertaking such projects without an obvious leader, but they are interesting indications of a learning process that has to happen in order to reach a sovereign everyday life, a true meaning of citizenship. The following example stands out because it's an interesting utilization of existing ideologies, official municipal mediators, locality, a desire for change and a keen knowledge of the population.

In Roumieh, a predominantly Christian Lebanese village, the municipality took an interesting route to convincing residents to recycle. In this video report (https://goo.gl/SrXSWw - sorry, couldn't find a subtitled one) the mayor describes the process of getting people to separate their trash readying it for a local recycling initiative. "We thought of the place where people gather the most," he said, "and the church was the most obvious answer."

Reflecting on our conversations on various definitions of ideology in Intro to Civic Media, I feel this experiment is interesting to discuss here. The religious structure as a platform to propagate its ideology is not usually used for civic agendas in Lebanon, but rather to reinforce itself. In this case, the municipality organizers were smart enough to mobilize an existing belief system to reach solutions outside the ideologies themselves. The mayor asked priests to talk about the importance of the environment in Sunday sermons and introduced the idea of proactive citizenship / agency when it comes to tackling the nationwide problem. After enforcing the necessity of action and possibility of the idea of recycling (and composting) the mayor describes the steps to educate citizens on day-to-day trash separation:

1. The municipality asked households to acquire a bin for organic waste that would be taken to compost
2. In another 'yellow' bag, residents would put waste that could be recycled
3. The garbage collection truck is composed of two teams: one that checks if the separation is correct, and another collects if all is OK
4. If not, the residents are required to re-do their homework, and the truck picks up the trash the next day
5. If residents are persistently failing, the garbage collection team gives them a red card as a warning
6. The last degree is to knock on the door of the failing households, empty the bags and teach them proper separation assuming they don't know how to do it.

According to the municipality, this process is working. It probably is due to many reasons, not simply because it started in church, a place where religious people suspend their disbelief, but I find that move commendable. There is a predominant air of cynicism stifling progress in Lebanon as if templates of the past are blueprints of the future. That is not true, and will probably best be disproved through creative disruptions of existing ideological infrastructures until the common good is more visible as a proposal than the myth of impossibility.

civic mediaIntro to Civic MediaCivic media
Categories: Blog

Missing Women, Blank Maps, and Data Voids: What Gets Counted Counts

March 22, 2016 - 3:56pm

Photo by Patsy Beaudoin.


From the Boston Public Library's description of the talk: The Leventhal Map Center and the Boston Map Society welcome Joni Seager, Professor and Chair at Bentley University to talk about her book “State of Women in the World Atlas.” In an age of data overload, the paucity of gender-disaggregated data persists. Mapping the status of women reveals a great deal about the state of the world, but the view is at best partial.

  Professor Seager is a feminist geographer and author of the internationally renowned “State of Women in the World Atlas” first published in 1986. Now in its fourth edition, the atlas has been published in more than a dozen foreign-language editions; in 2016 it will be released in Persian in Iran. Joni has worked with a number of governments and the UN on developing gender-sensitive statistical protocols. She is also a globally recognized expert in the field of gender and environmental policy, and has worked around the world on projects in this field.  
  Joni's talk is in conjunction with the Women in Cartography exhibit currently showing at the Boston Public Library.


Joni says her work parallels the work of Alice who have been trying to make women in cartography visible. Her work making women visible through cartography started in the 1980's at Clark. There was a lot of thematic mapping happening then. There were atlases on things like wine and trains and explorers. She and her colleague got annoyed that women were completely invisible in this proliferation of maps. They decided to do an atlas of women. The first came out in 1996.


Women in the World. The only global representation of women's lives through cartography at the time.

When they started this in 1984, they would look at them puzzledly. The authors had a laundry list of 150 topics that they wanted to put in the Atlas. The problem was really the data at the global scale. The data was scarce. There was little curiosity in the official realms of statistics about the role of gender. There were whole domains of inquiry that were blank. One of Joni's "easy" maps was to make a map of doctors. She thought governments would all have registers of doctors. The WHO was the agency that would have that information and she was looking at their yearbooks and she couldn't find anything about the gender of doctors, just number of doctors per country. She called the WHO and got their statistical division, and said "I can't figure out what I'm doing wrong and I'm sure you have this information." The woman said they should have it and to call her back. When Joni called back the woman said they did not collect the gender of the doctors. She said, "I guess we didn't think it was importnat information to collect." In the 1980s there were whole domains of information that simply didn't exist.

Fast forward to today - information is less cumbersome to retrieve. And there has been an astonishing data explosion, including data on women. World Bank is colleting info on property rights of women. The WHO is tracking violence against women. Other agencies are tracking sex trafficking. So there's progress, but a lot of it is illusory. For example the WHO has a database called GenderStats - a table in that measures whether women have the final say about whether they can visit family and friends. Another dataset is about whether women get to make final decisions about their health care. The problem is that in all these datasets there is no data. The tables are empty. They have named it as an interesting topic but they haven't collected the data.

Given the current hype, she thinks this is a good contemporary moment to reflect on data. She asks the question - "If all we knew about women was what's in the global data sets, what would we know?" Very little. There are astonishing gaps. The global data regimes do not reflect the sophisicated gender analyses in last 20 years. The mainstream data focus is shaped by the same utilitarian and "malestream" perspectives today as the 1980's. Power relations are masked. The focus is on equality not equity. And the data is productionist or reproductionist. What does this mean? Data are captured by production oriented categories such as waged work. We have had data about women in the workforce since the 1970s. Data that is not productionist is reproductionist, so about specifically topics of contraception and childbearing. Joni quips that women in poor countries seem to be asked about 6 times a day what kind of contraception they use. What's missing? Well, reproductive rights - access to abortion, for example. The UN Population affairs tracks global laws, but tracking actual vs legal access is not something that anyone collects data about. Many women need male authorization to get an abortion. She shows a map they made about abortion laws.

There are Missing Bodies. The gender data still only shows binary gender categories. Lesbians are mostly missing. Very often lesbian rights are subsumed under "gay rights" and women tend to disappear. Older women are in almost no data sets - maybe because they are neither productionist nor reproductionist.

There are two sets of problems in the current landscape. There is little official curiostiy about women's lives and there is little analytical acuity and that is one of the things that renders them invisible. There is little gender disaggregation as well - so you can't see gender differences.

She has recently put together a field guide to the top 3 ways not to include gender disaggregation:


  1. Collect gender-disaggregated data and then hide it. A lot of outlets do this. The EU's Eurobarometer put out a study about chemicals - a state survey of all kinds of chemicals, including household cleaners, etc. She rushed to get the report. There were snippets in the report that they had differentiated gender. But there was no conclusion drawn. She dug deeper and found the raw data and found that gender differences are more significant than country-level variance. None of this information is accessible to policymakers. They managed to hide a point that would inform a new policy. In this case a gendered analysis would provide a sounder basis for policy formation than populations of countries. She says to students "gender disaggregation makes you smarter". There is something perverse about collecting the gender data and then hiding it.

  2. Collect information at the household level. All forest, no trees. But households do not have education rates, literacy rates, water usage, health outcomes, food security, and so on. Feminists have long debated the "unitary theory" of the household. And yet many data aggregations use the household as the standard unit of measurement. She shows a recent study from Gallup on mobile phones in low-income countries. It says nearly 65% of households have mobile phones. This is true in some cases. But 64% of women in low-income countries do not have phones. Why? Some factors that affect both genders such as cost, illiteracy, innumeracy. But several factors relate specifically to women - less access to credit, male disapproval. There are many places where husbands will not allow their wives or daughters to have phones. So if a household has a phone, it doesn't mean that women in the household have access to a phone. The household becomes a method for obscuring the inequality of the sexes. Moreover, who gets asked to speak for the household in these surveys. It is the men. This makes women in particular invisible.

  3. Just don't collect it - This is the old-fashioned way to obscure the information. 85% of governments produce gender disaggregated information on mortality. But when you get down to agricultural statistics, that's 44%. Access to clean water - 37%. Despite our enthusiasm for how much information we have today - this is not getting better. For example, gender disaggregated stats on water and sanitation. She discusses the cases of organizational reports from JMP and GLAAS (out of the UN/WHO). In both cases these organizations have recently stopped collecting gender disaggregated data. In disaster databases, almost none are disaggregated.

What's a girl to do?

We need feminist data avengers. Measurement counts. What gets counted, counts. When it's not counted it's absent and invisible. She says, "Disaggregation starts at home." Wherever you are you can advocate for disaggregation of gendered data. She suggests also pushing beyond the constraints of the data regimes. She discusses women's sports and bodies and how they would like that to be visible in the Women's Atlas, but the only map they have is of the Olympics. This is a far cry from what they would love to do, but at least a nod. They also have a complicated map about beauty and the way that norms of beauty are used to police women. All of that is very hard to map so they mapped the cosmetics industry.


She says with Big Data if you put Big Stupid In then you get Big Stupid Out. She ends with a call for everyone --- "Resist the complacency of the apparent data surfeit."

Response to the Question: There are very few women in Big Data. There are few women at Google in research positions. Very few could actually be instrumental. It would be really interesting to bring gender analysis to these big searches.

Alice: Have you had any organizations react to your issues and say they will do better?

Joni: She talks about this at every opportunity. She has heated conversations, for example with JMP. There has recently been feminist activism on the SDG indicators because they are a leading edge. If the SDG ratifies gender disaggregated data in their indicators then everyone else will follow. But there's a lot of resistance to it even though collecting gender is not rocket science. There are a lot of people pressing on this but it's an uphill struggle.

Audience: An audience member brings up a recent controversy in which the cell biologists discovered that cell behavior is actually different for different genders. But most of the researchers are males as are most of the research subjects. Some of the revelations show that female cells behave in very different ways but the knowledge base is very small. Grants never mandate an equal balance in the research base.

Joni: There's been a lot of interest in the lab fields in the problem of using just male mice for the basis of biological research in, for example, exposure to toxins. If they are doing that at the cellular level that's really interesting. There's a whole book called "Women are not just Small Men". Air bags, for example, were designed for a 180-lb 6-foot male and in the beginning were decapitating women. Things are often designed for the normative male body. 

Audience: What about doing an atlas just on the US?

Joni: There was one about men and women that came out about 5 years after ours. This would be rich because the country is rich in data. It would be great project but I'm currently atlas-ed out but happy to advise.


Categories: Blog

Applying Decoding Models to Privacy Issues

March 7, 2016 - 9:24pm

How do we find the hegemonic viewpoint surrounding mass surveillance in America? President Obama introduces the issue in a speech: "At the dawn of our Republic, a small, secret surveillance committee borne out of the “The Sons of Liberty” was established in Boston. And the group’s members included Paul Revere." The mentioning of Paul Revere is important. He appeals to legitimacy by immediately framing the issue in a historic context, and associating with it a prominent heroic figure of American history. He continues tacitly justifying the current situation, and takes note of "potential for abuse," but then takes a particularly enlightening turn, relaying that "here is an inevitable bias not only within the intelligence community, but among all of us who are responsible for national security, to collect more information about the world, not less. So in the absence of institutional requirements for regular debate -- and oversight that is public, as well as private or classified -- the danger of government overreach becomes more acute. And this is particularly true when surveillance technology and our reliance on digital information is evolving much faster than our laws." His speech then tumbles into obscurity, only to specify that the rules were approved by the secret FISA court.

Hall talks about how his framework of thinking about communication fits well into how television communicates. As someone witnessing this speech on tv, I can be a dominant-hegemonic viewer, and accept that these government agencies benefit Americans, assuming the cultural thought is that of assuming our government workers will be managed in a way that protects us the most. We can come close to analyzing wether or not we think that most people think in that framework when they listen to the president by looking at peoples' views on the issue itself, but it must definitely be noted that these are not the same thing. Pew Research has done a large amount of research on this, and found in their results that 93% of participants thought that "being in control of who can get info about you" was at least "Not very important."

This shows us that there is a high likelihood that many people listening President Obama's words would take a negotiated stance while ingesting it. Notably, "Just 6% of adults say they are “very confident” that government agencies can keep their records private and secure." The negotiated reader can acknowledge that intelligence agencies want more access to information to improve their work, but view the media as a human with experiences that tell them that they are not "very confident" that another agency of humans can secure their important information. Anecdotally, many people could think back to a moment when they were growing up, and told someone a secret that eventually got out.

Pew's research also points to the possibility a significant population that takes a oppositional view when listening to the President. It is noted that 31% of responses said they were "Not at all confident" that records of their activity will remain private and secure by government agencies. If Snowden could release information about secret and important government happenings, then surely a breach of citizens' private information is not out of the question, as it has already happened to government employees in the database at the Office of Personnel Management.

Changing the subject a bit, it is interesting to note that President Obama does vaguely state that a hypothetical person that did the things that Edward Snowden did would cause issues to our national security. He hints at the peculiar way that Snowden releases the statements: "Moreover, the sensational way in which these disclosures have come out has often shed more heat than light." In a way, he is likening Edward Snowden's actions to releasing tactical media.

This is a very interesting proposal, but there is definitely validity to it. Tactical media, in my view, was distinct from strategic media because instead of taking spaces to create influence, tactical media opens spaces for possibilities to emerge. This is exactly what Snowden has done, whether it has hurt our security or not. Snowden releases the media slowly, and that makes it so we can spend more time debating individual issues as they come up, instead of them all coming up at the same time, burning, and blowing over all at once. Every time Snowden releases more information, it opens the space of possible things that the public can think about when it comes to internet security.

Obama says it "often shed more heat than light," and it is this heat that becomes an opportunity for people to debate something that was outside of the public view. It is also humorous that he chooses to heat (public reaction) to light because Snowden's revelations have literally shed light on an issue that was previously in the dark to most, even to Congress. In class we used NewsJack to build phony websites that reflect what we would want our hypothetical front page to look like if things go our way. My hypothetical New York Times front page has a collection of headlines that would make me trust my privacy more if they were real. I think the possibilities would shed light on the deeper issues, and turn down the heat.

governmentIntro to Civic Mediamedia
Categories: Blog

2016: Year of the Tactical Takedown?

March 7, 2016 - 1:35pm

The present presidential election is a spectacle, in the truest sense of the word, like few before. Just as FDR's weekly radio addresses and JFK's success in the first televised presidential debate watermark the adoption and cooption of a particular communication medium for political ends, so the 2016 campaign may go down in history as marking a seismic shift in the landscape of political uses of media. The candidate leading the charge, this time round, is unquestionably Donald Trump, currently the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. Yet it's a little more difficult to identify precisely which medium or platform Trump has coopted. The most readily available answer seems to be 'all of the above' - although in different ways.

First, there's social media. Facebook and Twitter are new, but not, any longer, that new, and have been adopted by politicians in all stripes in earlier cycles. Nonetheless, they have served as a venue par excellence for the unfettered, unfiltered spewings that Trump excels in (particularly Twitter, with its easy sharing functions and disproportionate usage by newsmakers). Second, the mainstream media has also been remarkably receptive to and complicit in the large share of attention Trump has received. A recent chart produced by the Economist is striking, showing that coverage given to Trump is far in excess of his rival candidates.

Trump, it therefore seems, has successfully coopted a plethora of platforms, new and old, digital and analog: we are thus living through a revolution in political communication in which the tactics are more important than the battlefield they are being deployed on. The use of the term "tactics" here is deliberate. In class this week, we were introduced to the concept of tactical media, a concept which grew out of the exploitation of "the revolution in consumer electronics and expanded forms of distribution (from public access cable to the internet)" and is what happens when these platforms "are exploited by groups and individuals who feel aggrieved by or excluded from the wider culture (The ABC of Tactical Media"). Tactical media has elsewhere been characterized as "expressions of dissent ... created from readily available, relatively cheap technology and means of communication (e.g., radio, video and Internet)", which are "used opportunistically", and are "evolving constantly" (Renzi, The Space of Tactical Media.)

What is striking is how similar elements of Trump's approach are to a "tactical" approach. Much has been made, for example, of Trump's opportunistic utilization of the free media provided by his outlandish statements and stunts. His dissents, criticism and opposition - in the form of transgressions against GOP orthodoxy, and bigoted statements against various groups - have been a fundamental part of his campaign, and perhaps his appeal. And his unpredictable, shifting targets and talking points, which would of course be disastrous in an actual administration, have made it almost impossible for his campaign rivals to keep up with - a factor which also worries allies of his putative general election opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Of course, it's imperative to point out at this juncture that nothing of the substance of what Trump says, does or believes have the remotest relation to the views of those who have typically created tactical media or employed it as an approach. Moreover, Trump's status as a privileged-from-birth billionaire stands fundamentally at odds with the use of tactical media by and for those outside the mainstream; his rhetorical opposition to the elitist-capitalist system on which so much of his self-image relies is perfectly contradictory and vacuous; and he attacks, rather than celebrates or supports, "cultures of exile and migration".

Yet even though Trump is so far removed from tactical media in a spiritual, ideological sense, the fact that practical elements of his approach bear a resemblance suggests that a tactical media mindset may offer one of the best hopes for countering his campaign. As it happens, examples of such a backlash have already appeared: in the #NeverTrump hashtag, for instance, but also more pointedly in the unlikely "Donald Drumpf" trend, which involves a browser hack to render Trump's surname "Drumpf" across the web. In class, we also played around with Newsjack, a tool co-created by Sasha and Dan Schultz, which remixes the text of mainstream news sites. It's remarkable the effect that can be had subverting the news in this way and, perhaps needless to say, my fake story was the hypothetical impeachment and removal from office, a year from now, of one President Trump.

The mainstream media, the political establishment, rival candidates - all have been stunned into submission or complicity by Trump's continued success at the polls. Perhaps a more effective approach to defeating his candidacy starts with turning tactical tools and techniques against his campaign. The myriad examples that can be drawn from tactical media may show the way.

Intro to Civic Media
Categories: Blog

Truth vs. Proposal

March 6, 2016 - 9:18am

Following up on our discussion in class on Tactical Media approaches, and especially after the Headline Remixing exercise using http://newsjack.in/, I remembered an article I wrote around two years ago for the English version of the Lebanese newspaper, Al-Akhbar. At the time, I was a weekly contributor for Al-Akhbar in a column titled “The Farewell Chronicles” aimed at linking political, social and cultural issues in a light, narrative format.   Due to go live on April 1st, 2014, I saw this article as an opportunity to infiltrate the factual medium of a newspaper that allegedly delivers the truth with something that is close to a proposal — a hopeful article that on that day would be total fiction, but sometime in the future, a potential reality.   My initial aim was to release the article without warning of its fictive intentions, but that seemed too much for my editors, hence the spoon-fed title and opening sentence. Excuse that. It is a piece that invites the reader to realize how good it feels to read good news, especially within a platform that uses classical news journalism tone-of-voice and writing models.   But how could these stories, articles and headlines of tomorrow be realized?   What I still find vague in Tactical Media approaches is the bigger picture, and whether the bigger picture is something that is necessary. Is a utopian scenario for the participatory model of media production incompatible with a unified/grand direction by definition?   I am yet to find a convincing take on that, merely because I’m interesting in Civic Media practices that could lead to models of governance of the ideas being communicated. This idea of seeding fictional scenarios into reality with a convinced, straight face, somehow asking, “Why not have this as a reality instead?” seems more potent than “raising awareness” and “shedding light” on specific issues, knowing that these are not mutually exclusive ideas. The Proposal offers something more than the Truth, a speculative tool for aspiration that is worth exploring.   You can read the Al-Akhbar article below or follow this link for the original post. http://goo.gl/E7JU6r   --

An opportunity to imagine a bright, green, and tolerant Lebanon

For this post, you will have to play along with me. It’s the first of April, and it’s a great time to be Lebanese.

I’ll be in Beirut just in time for the Erasure Festival, held every year to officially inaugurate all the public spaces that were opened the year prior. The festival started after the Council for Urban Development decided to prohibit the flattening of historic buildings, and demolish new buildings instead – buildings that don’t comply with formal and functional qualities that contribute to a good life in a good city. If you’ve been in Beirut in the early 2000s, you would know which buildings I’m talking about.

In place of every demolished building, a new garden, park, or public facility is erected to cater to our cherished communal well-being. Somewhere along the line of a series of tragic urban development strategies, we realized that a nation with a tree on its flag couldn’t neglect its environmental strategy. Better yet, we decided that a green strategy should be our guiding light, a template for our different development plans. It’s been great for us ever since.

A lot of work has been done to improve the way we inhabit our beautiful country, commute and move in and out of it. I am around ten minutes south of Naqoura, and the train is quiet enough to write on. I can write for a living now. I can even pay rent, buy food, and travel every now and then. The man sitting next to me still cries every time he crosses the border in or out of Palestine from Lebanon. Palestine is free now, and I’m almost used to it. My uncles live in Nablus, and I visit quite often. I always make sure to have extra room in my luggage to pack some cheese and knefeh to compete with those back home in Tripoli. My mother hates it when I do that, “Ours are better,” she always says. I just find the similarities between both cities very interesting. They taste the same, “No they don’t.”

After years of conflict on the northern border of Tripoli, dating back to the seventies, the city is now flourishing again. The army has ended battles that were wounding the city, drifting it into exponential economic meltdown for more than thirty consecutive years. The International Fair grounds designed by internationally renowned Brazilian architect – and one of the fathers of Modernist architecture – Oscar Niemeyer is finally being renovated. It’s planned to open in the beginning of 2015 in parallel to a rehabilitation project for the port of Tripoli that has also been pending for quite some time.

In the past, areas outside Beirut were not on the agenda of national development, but it’s interesting that the we’re moving away from being Beirut-centric. Different cities such as Tripoli, Sidon and Tyre are getting their fair share of investments. Now, instead of solving traffic congestion into Beirut with eccentric proposals such as a water taxi, we just dissolve the reason for traffic. No one really wants to leave his or her home to work eighty kilometers away anyways. The Lebanese government has been working hard to provide job opportunities in every part of the country and the results until now are humbling.

Eight out of ten of my friends walk to work. Five out of ten don’t have cars, not because they can’t afford them, but because there is no need anymore. Erasure festivals have been sprouting in every neighborhood and people actually love walking in their cities. My grandmother is going out again, and swears the city is as beautiful as it was during the golden age she was always nostalgic about.

Besides the apparent improvements on an urban level, the political landscape is exciting again. I’m definitely going to vote this year. The presidential elections are in a few months time, and it’s the first time the Lebanese people will get to choose their president. Heck, for the first time, I could have run for president. We voted against the sectarian quotas mandated by the Taif Accord last month, and now the presidential chair is not bound by any religious affiliations.

Love is exciting again. The government actually released its most charming decree yet, “Love whomever you want – formally and/or informally: It’s none of our business.” Freedom is one of the things that sounded impossible a few years back. It might take a little bit of time for everyone to bask in the safety it begets, and the responsibility it demands, but we’re definitely onto something.

You know we’re onto something when you can stumble upon narratives in the city that are powerful enough to inspire you, and change they way you think about things. I was walking towards the old city center in Sidon a few nights ago on my way to take the train to Nablus, and I stumbled on a mosque that was once home to one of the most notorious sheikhs in the country. The mosque was closed for a while after some security issues, but it seems to have reopened. I stopped by its entrance and peaked inside. A young Imam was getting ready to recite his Khutba before prayers. Khutbas generally scare me. As I prejudicially thought of how everyone inside was on the verge of getting brainwashed, the young Imam spoke.

  “Dearly beloved, thank you for being here today. Thank you for the love in your eyes. Thank you for your lightness of heart. Thank you for your passion. Thank you for your happiness. Thank you for your sadness. Thank you for your contradictions. Thank you for your bad, and your good. Thank you for your bodies, and souls. Men and women, please stand straight and align your shoulders with each other,” the men and women stood straight, aligning their shoulders with each other, and repeated after the young Imam, “Allah-u Akbar.”    intro civic media
Categories: Blog

Hiring a Researcher / Community Manager for Media Cloud

March 4, 2016 - 6:15am
Come help social change organizations understand media conversations about topics they care about, and assess how their media campaigns are doing in changing media narratives. You'll use our suite of quantitative media analysis tools built on MediaCloud to explore online media coverage of issues such as wellness and health and/or women’s rights and social norms in both the U.S. and in selected developing countries.    You'll work closely with the team of researchers and developers at the MIT Media Lab and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.  The collaborative work with outside organizations will directly impact the design of the next generation of our tools. This grant-funded position provides an opportunity for someone to conduct important research into how social mobilization interacts with media and to help make Media Cloud more useful for non-profits trying to understand and influence how the media portrays the topics they work on. It is expected that scholarly and popular publications will arise from this research.   Read the full job description for details
Categories: Blog

So, What is "Speculative Civic Media"?

March 2, 2016 - 2:53pm

This is my first post here, so hello. I’m Raafat, here at MIT for a couple of years of research at the Art, Culture and Technology program. I’m on this blog because I’m taking the "Intro to Civic Media" class this semester. Speaking from a Contemporary Art vantage point, it could be argued that defining an era by time/situation (Contemporary) rather than “formal” discourse (i.e. Modernism) is a label for a transition that has been kidnapped by an external, non-art-related factor. Art today, as a ubiquitous global product conforms more to a global market (kidnapper) than to art itself. This is not to say that art needs to be autonomous, but the expectations of it in “social impact” and “cultural influence” should be assessed based on the above-mentioned reality.

Comparisons could be drawn with contemporary revolutions that were kidnapped and/or derailed by forces that are more sustainable than “careful and slow" liberation. The Egyptian revolution was kidnapped first by the Muslim brotherhood and then by the military. The Syrian war is still oscillating between resisting a dictatorship and a fear of what might replace it given derailed temporary victories around it.

I am interested in understanding the dynamics of social movements, potentially invisible ones, that act silently on infrastructure rather than hype. My work in contemporary art borrows from the fluid discourse as a set of resources, but doesn’t comply to its systems. I am at a point where I am looking for different examples and methods of investigating cultural interventions outside the brackets of contemporary art. This is where my interest in Civic Media is rooted. What kind of conversations could spark out of intersecting media with the civic scale? What is the civic scale? Is the word public obsolete, and if so, what are shared projects and where do we exist?

I’m still brainstorming what to physically deliver as a project in “Intro to Civic Media,” but there are many points that are already shaping up within my constant transition between contemporary art and civic media conversations on a daily basis. For example, in opposition to the ubiquitous global product that contemporary art revolves around, I am interested in creating works that need translation — specific works that make perfect sense in some places, and whose values do not depend on cross-cultural shareability. On the other hand, what’s on the table is my attempts to define my work process (writing narrative fiction as proposals for non-fiction socially engaged applications) as “Speculative Civic Media,” a title proposed by Sasha after one of my presentations in class. So what is "Speculative Civic Media"?

I am yet to find out, but it’s already an exciting turn of events. Within this process, I’m looking at Transformative Media Organizing diagrams (http://transformativemedia.cc/the-project/tmo101/) as references to develop similar systems of abstractions of what I used to consider an artistic process in my practice. To do so, I will be using the process of writing “The Perfumed Garden: An Autobiography of Another Arab World” as a case study, tracing the writing of fiction, reifying it through “public” engagement and studying formats and models for sustainability for writing (and in a broader sense: cultural production) as a social movement.

intro civic mediaactivismIntro to Civic Media
Categories: Blog

We Should Have the Right to Trust Our iPhone Passcodes

February 29, 2016 - 9:37pm

Smartphones have become an almost universal tool for the masses, mainly as a simple gateway to the Internet. Though, in recent years these devices have increasingly become personalized and full of even more intimate data. Some would argue that our smartphones are extensions of ourselves because they could function as an "extended mind" and will start becoming a hub for internet connected devices that could leave behind real-time footprints of their users. The design of the devices themselves have shifted to reflect this closer intimacy between users and their devices. New iPhones have fingerprint scanners so that people can't just look over your shoulder while you type your password and iOS has tighter rules on when the iPhone requires a passcode if the fingerprint scanner is enabled. A fairly recent change to iOS security made the phone encrypt itself with the user's passcode, but it had no noticeable affect on user experience so most people didn't know it happened.

The FBI has been investigating the shooting in San Bernardino, CA, and the Justice Department filed a motion to compel Apple to create a version of iOS that would allow the FBI to guess your device password with unlimited tries, and electronically so they didn't need to physically type each guess in. It is highly curious that the Justice Department hasn't filed any motions compelling gun manufacturers to prevent terrorist attacks. Instead the FBI has framed the issue as a clash between national security and Apple's "marketing strategy", trying to force a very narrow narrative on an issue that will affect the rights of over 44 million American iPhone users.

Last Spring I was able to take a class on Network and Computer Security taught by Ronald Rivest, an inventor of RSA encryption. For my final project I decided to hack my own iPhone. I was ran iOS 8 at the time, but as every version of iOS has come out, hackers have been able to root, or jailbreak, the phone, allowing users to access tools that were reserved for the operating system itself. For most people who jailbreak their phone, this means they can download unsanctioned-by-Apple utilities to modify their phone in unique ways. Popular modifications include changing the look of default apps and adding ones that are outside Apple's App Store.

For a hacker, jailbreaking means I can run programs that have rules outside the closed wall of "iPhone Apps". So I set up a connection between my laptop and phone used a utility called cycript to cause havoc on my iPhone. I would sit on my laptop while someone used my phone, and could copy passwords out of text as someone typed. I could add buttons to do random things, or make every outgoing connection forward the data to another service, effectively spying on every piece of network traffic on my phone (unless traffic itself was encrypted). It was actually frightening how easy it was to do this, and I no longer jailbreak my phone because of this outcome.

It is important to not that it was ultimately my choice to weaken my phone's security, and I was only able to make this choice because I knew my phone's passcode lock, or owned my fingerprint. For someone to make their phone vulnerable to this type of attack, they would need to unlock their phone. In a way unlocking becomes a form of contract, a way of saying that I sanction what happens on this device and with my information. I believe that our government must protect that contract in order for us to continue enjoying technology and the internet.

Examining the confrontation as one between two specific actors, the FBI and Apple, it does make sense for the FBI to want Apple to do this if we view fighting terrorism as their sole incentive. In our readings we learned of Walmart and how they increased efficiency using surveillance. The FBI wants an easy way to break into iPhones. It doesn't actually matter whether they are already able to do it, because Apple could very easily change their algorithms and it would cost the FBI money to crack it again. Also, they would need to develop this cracking technology for other operating systems too, further adding to their operating costs. The only reason the FBI would want Apple to unlock this specific iPhone is for precedent to do it in the future, to place the financial burden on tech companies to develop tools to hack users' devices when the investigators need it (much like the government can ask tech companies for your information stored on servers the company owns, only this is the phone the user owns).

In a way this case comes to the public view as activism on the FBI's part. There are many iPhones that the FBI would want unencrypted, but they chose to act on this one specifically to start the public dialogue. This conflict deals with terrorism, an idea that is historically frightening to the US, which could cause people to sympathize with the FBI.

In class we looked at a website called littlesis.org that allowed users to map out relationships between powerful people. I was searching around for maps concerning this case and found an interesting map called Chertoff fed agency map 1. Looking at the map, you see that the group has many members positioned across various Defense and Intelligence agencies. If you go to the Chertoff Group website, you are greeted with media concerning cybersecurity. It's articles page links to a Wall Street Journal article where a former head of the CIA and NSA says, "Look, your armed forces view cyber as a domain. Land, sea, air, space, cyber." If our armed forces view cyber as a domain, then why does this group support legislation that prevents citizens from protecting themselves in this domain?

activismCivic mediagovernmenttechnology solutions
Categories: Blog

Media, Stories, and Boston youth

February 29, 2016 - 4:46am

"Those who do not have the power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts." - Salman Rushdie

Story is powerful. Whether the his-stories ingested through schooling, the discourses given voice in the news or the identities composed in popular culture, we make the world and are made by the world, through narrative. Politicians get this, media scholars get this, the youth get this.

I was visiting a 5th grade bilingual classroom in the Santa Fe Public Schools (SFPS) last year, documenting the program that I worked with, El Otro Lado, which uses the arts to draw out personal story in the classroom. The students were doing an activity about their hopes and their dreams, imagining the lives they’d like to live in the future. I crouched next to desks, my camera hanging around my neck, and listened to young people tell me about going to college, buying a car, learning how to drive. As I milled through the classroom one young girl’s drawing caught my eye. She drew a princess-style prom dress on a girl with skin as pale as the page and bright blond hair pulled up into a ponytail. My eyes scanned from the paper on her desk to the brown hand holding the colored pencil and the dark hair that hid her face from where I stood looking over her shoulder. The realization that this young Mexican woman saw herself in a prom dress as white-skinned and blond-haired knocked the wind out of my chest.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to speak with the young woman about her self portrait that day in New Mexico; however my experiences in education have taught me that multiculturalism impacts youth engagement in an important way (I’m still unpacking the nuances of the “how”). Although El Otro Lado hasn’t studied the ways in which students involved are impacted in terms of academic outcomes, participating teachers describe increased engagement in their classrooms and students note the impact of seeing themselves and one another in a new light through the stories they share about who they are and where they come from. Debra Holloway, among others, has synthesized studies and scholarship which demonstrate the power of arts education for social transformation in ways that mirror what I saw in classrooms throughout Santa Fe.

As an educator working at the intersection of cultural exchange, civic engagement and arts education, that moment in a classroom encapsulates the ways in which an essential component of a student’s success in a learning environment has to do with whether or not they see themself in the stories they are learning through. This year, as my work moves into the media realm and extends beyond the classroom, I’ve arrived at a burning curiosity to know how youth think about the types of narratives they encounter in their own media engagements and experiences. I’m consistently in conversation with texts, coworkers, and colleagues about these ideas but have realized that a key perspective -- the key perspective -- is missing. Where are the youth? To this end I am drumming up a participatory project that will bring youth from different corners of our city together to explore their own curiosities around media as a group. I’m dying to know what they think about the stories they’re exposed to, how they conceive of engagement and participation and if they use media themselves to talk back to the narratives they witness. Do students in the Boston area feel more engaged when they see themselves represented in the media? Or, will the students have an entirely different question we should be asking?

Stay tuned.

civic mediaeducation
Categories: Blog

Boy Better Get To Know: Why Britain Needs to Recognise and Celebrate its Black Artists

February 28, 2016 - 5:59am

For the past few years, grime has been making a small but significant shift in the mainstream. Artists like Wiley, Dizzee and Tinie have spilled over into the realms of pop culture. Others, like Skepta, spilled over and pulled back again, wanting to forge their own way into the limelight without conforming to polished beats and signing to major labels.

There’s no question: artists like Wiley and the Roll Deep crew set the stage for this new wave of artists. Without Dizzee’s enduring popularity, his ability to draw crowds at festivals across the globe and collaborate with some of the world’s biggest producers, it’s unlikely that artists like Skepta, Stormzy and Krept and Konan would be in a position to retain a larger sense of their roots.

Not that the artists preceding them ever strove away from their roots - but they certainly adopted a more commercial sound. Perhaps the definitive shift was Skepta’s “That’s Not Me”. Perhaps the turning point was already visible in Temps’ “Next Hype”. Perhaps it was in the rise of SBTV, Link Up TV, and the digital channels for alternative cultural production that didn’t have the high thresholds of grimes’ beginnings in pirate radio.

Released in 2014, Skepta’s “That’s Not Me” featured a lo-fi video and a sound more reminiscent of the rudimentary riddims made on PlayStations than “Wearing my Rolex”. The video cost him £80 and returned to the aesthetics of the DIY camcorder videos that had been the form of self-expression on the streets. The song represented Skepta’s move away from major label studio albums and also, arguably, away from commercial expectations and disappointing responses. The words themselves speak of Skepta’s journey, with Skepta spitting out “Yeah, I used to wear Gucci / I put it all in the bin ‘cos that’s not me” for the hook. Unlike the non-hegemonic forms of masculinity promoted by the hip-hop world, grime turns it’s back on expensive cars, haute couture brands (unless it’s Margiela) and California women by the pool. It’s still rampantly misogynistic, but the brand of masculinity grime promotes is one of authenticity: Adidas tracksuits and knowing where you came from.

The grime video aesthetic: the pixelated low-resolution footage; the unabashed disregard for steadicam; the low-budget, street based mise-en-scene; and the permeating and quintessentially British humour, all perhaps hark back to the original “Lord of the Mics” videos. Jammer first started the Lord of the Mics series in 2004, transforming the long tradition of clashing, from dancehall master of ceremonies to the live lyrical battles of pirate radio and underground raves, into a DVD that he sold out the back of his car and in local record stores. 12 years on and LOTM is a cultural institution in it’s own right. It’s a sign of grime’s shifting audience that this year's tickets are going for  £100, and the YouTube videos are now blocked for copyright infringement.

The original qualities of these films: the pirate-quality, the lighting of east London basements, the sweat and energy of the crowds, are distilled in Temps’ “Next Hype” video, a 2009 foray into fish-eye visuals with the well-worn “tipping over your CD rack / not getting none of your CDs back”. Featuring Tim Westwood, the video embodies the self-deprecating humour that grime videos so often capture and everyone in it can barely smother their smiles. Like Stormzy’s “Know Me From”, complete with cardboard cut-outs, or Yungen’s “Punk”, a la pizza in petrol stations, the video represents not only a form of humour but a form of literacy, a chain of inside jokes and references.

With over 7million views on youtube, “Next Hype” has become it’s own sort of cultural touchstone. Without platforms like YouTube, where producers are free to produce their own content, grime could never have reached such a large audience. Of course, these new channels and wider audiences have their own drawbacks. Starting on pirate radio, with stations like Rinse FM pushing the grime scene forward, an OFCOM license also meant a certain degree of censorship. DJ Sian Anderson talks about how the newly scrubbed up tracks forced her favourite MCs off the tracklists. This self-censorship still exists, but with the growth of the online “youth” channels SBTV and Link Up TV around the same time Rinse went legal, the platforms for self-expression are definitely growing even if the parameters of what’s acceptable to say are closing in. It’s a classic trade off between what larger audiences deem socially acceptable and what’s important to keep saying even if Middle England finds its distasteful.

These platforms are allowing grime artists to navigate this trade-off more on their own terms than ever before. Yet, there remains a history of music in Britain, stemming back to the arrival of Jamaican dancehall, which is consistently erased. Dancehall, garage, drum and bass, dubstep, jungle and grime are all variations on a theme that reaches back to the Jamaican diaspora and civil rights movement in Britain. The black histories of these genres are conveniently forgotten, as they take on a white face signed to a major label, with a scrubbed up sound suitable for the radio accompaniment of the cornflower-blue morning commute.

Grime can’t be UK’s answer to hip-hop because, unlike hip-hop, grime has never been given the recognition it deserves. Hip-hop has become prestigious, empowering, ‘the euphemism for a new religion / the soul music of the slaves that the youth is missing’, as Ye said. What’s important about hip-hop is that it has carved out a niche for it’s own self-determined aesthetic within the mainstream. Grime, on the other hand, is constantly shoved back into the corner. Artists may find their way onto Radio 1xtra’s Fire in the Booth segment, but then their only mainstream exposure will be a part of Charlie Sloth’s “Rap Show”.

So is it any wonder the latest generation of rising, young, black artists in the UK are turning their backs on the route of commercialism, commodity and conforming? Our music industry has exploited their innovation and their art for generations.

Last year, Kanye asked Skepta to find some boys to join him onstage for his performance of “All Day”. Why is this the only way for grime artists to get on stage at the Brits? It stands as yet another symbol of the relegation of black British talent to the background. Only a few days ago Krept and Konan were on Channel 4 news being interviewed by Krishnan Guru-Murphy about the Brits lack of diversity. Referring to the recent hype between Yungen and Chip, Guru-Murphy asked, “does it have anything to do with gang culture?” in turn sacrificing himself to all the ignorance of the British population. This isn’t to deny grime’s often violent past - Simon Wheatley’s photographs capture the gang aspects of the early grime scene (and who can forget that picture of Skepta in the fish and chip shop?). Yet, grime is a mode to articulate these forms of oppression and often constructs productive interventions for those left most disillusioned and disenfranchised by our social system. Perhaps it is time for Guru-Murphy to ask us why we still find black bodies intimidating?

Which leads us to the recent hype between Chip and Yungen. Whilst Yungen getting nominated for the “Newcomer” MOBO is important recognition for the scene, like Chip said, he isn’t new: “Some of your best newcomers ain’t new / So if you gunna nominate Yungen, big up, but nominate Sneakbo too.” It’s less shade at Yungen, and more at the British music academy. Importantly, this beef is racking up visibility for both artists and seeing increasingly speedy production of some of 2016’s best beats. But, despite this seething talent, the big award shows remain empty of any representation of black British artists this year. Drake, the Weeknd, and Kendrick Lamar all got Brit nominations for “Best International Male Artist”, but it’s like black voices, beats and tunes don’t exist in the UK. And what this points to is the sad state of the British music academy that can only recognise white, or white-washed, music. It barely recognises independent labels. I wonder if it realises that Boy Better Know exists, or that it has just signed one of America’s biggest hip-hop stars. One nominated for a Brit, in fact, who left the ceremony early to go hang out at the Section Boyz show…



grime; UK; #britssowhite
Categories: Blog

CMS.860 Reflection: Duplicity, Access and Digital Inequality

February 22, 2016 - 7:25pm

This week in CMS.860 we discussed readings about digital inequality and blogospheres in Cuba and had the privilege of hearing from Paloma Duong who looks at digital media, youth culture, and the public sphere in contemporary Havana.

We began by unpacking Eszter Hargittai’s The Digital Reproduction of Inequality through a group mapping exercise where we visualized the concepts put forth on a long whiteboard. An introductory premise of the article is to challenge a traditional and binary understanding of the “digital divide” which simplifies the access gap to those who have access and those who don’t. Hargittai suggests that the layers of digital inequality are more nuanced and calls for a different approach: “A more refined approach considers different aspects of the divide, focusing on such details as quality of equipment, autonomy of use, the presence of social support networks, experience and user skills.” Working in pairs, we had a handful of minutes to draw our diagram before rotating to add to another pair’s. The production continued until we had collectively added to each pair’s drawing, exquisite corpse style.

Katie and I ended on an image that looked like a football field and ran with the metaphor. We crafted characters based on geographic location and social position (a businessman in China or a middle-class American youth, for example) and imagined relative heights of hurdles different characters would have to clear to enter the field of digital access.

Despite the many layers that had been captured in varying marker colors on a long whiteboard, Sasha guided our group reflection to several key factors that were missing and show up clearly in the Pew Internet and American Life report we had read, such as race and geographic location.* 

After setting the stage by grappling with the complicated nature of digital inequality, we turned to Paloma Duong’s presentation of her work with Cuba’s digital segregation, alternative economies and illegal (but tolerated) gaming networks. For a clearly articulated summary of the presentation, see our classmate Katie Arthur's post here.

Without reproducing an overall summary -- as Katie already has -- I would like to compare the vision of cyberspace and civil society put forth by Ted A. Henken and Sjammi van de Voort in From Cyberspace to Public Space? The Emergent Blogosphere and Cuban Civil Society with Duong’s talk.

Henken and van de Voort talk about the shifting cyber-scape of bloggers in recent years in Cuba. Looking at a variety of blogger collectives they “seek to understand Cuban bloggers” strategies dealing with the following challenges:

  • How do they resolve the conflict between self-preservation and self-censorship -- that is how do they deal with the dilemma of the double moral (duplicity)?
  • How do they preserve an independent and critical posture toward Cuban reality in a context where the mass media are under government control and where nearly all Internet access points are mediated (and likely monitored) by institutions, by money, or by some other kind of influence or control?
  • How do they access the Internet, who can revoke that access, and under what conditions?
  • Who is their audience, and how do they maintain an interactive relationship with them in such a disconnected environment?
  • What have been the biggest obstacles to engaging in dialogue, debate, and collaboration with other bloggers both within and outside Cuba?

Looking at four prominent blogger collectives, Voces Cubanas, Havana Times, Bloggers Cuba and La Joven Cuba Henken and van de Voort draw out the various ways each collective navigates the conflict between self-preservation and self-censorship. I’d like to focus on this particular question, albeit just one of those set out by the authors, to put in conversation with Duong’s explanation of how internet is accessed illegally in the country. Duong emphasized that there are illegal ways of accessing the internet overlooked by the government and there are other illegal ways of accessing the internet that are not. The paquete semanal, for example, successfully delivers the latest global entertainment and applications via a 1TB external hard drive literally hoofed door to door, but does so by avoiding the untolerables of pornography or politics, while gamers construct and collectively manage a network for that avoids being shut down by staying off of the internet.

As Duong explained the nuances and fragile contours of navigating alternative IT economies, the nature of evading prosecution struck me as relatively arbitrary in the same way that certain blogger collectives manage to stay afloat in Henken and van de Voort’s survey while others, such as La Joven Cuba, are shut down.

While the concept of the double moral as the tension between self-preservation and self-censorship occurs in different ways in the alternative economies Duong researches, I'd suggest that it is a theme in both Duong and Henken and van de Voort's work that exemplifies the nuanced nature of digital inequality and access in contemporary Cuba. Whether in the public eye at the Blogazo X Cuba conference for bloggers (hosted by none other than Mariela Castro) or inside homes where el paquete delivers the latest digital files weekly, the tension of the double moral serves as a springboard to explore the nuanced layers of digital access.

*The New York Times Technology section produced this timely article after our class discussion that looks at the implications of digital inequality as more school functions become internet dependent.

civic media digital inequality
Categories: Blog

Consider the Lawn Sign: elections as civic engagement

February 21, 2016 - 11:30am


Last week I had the chance to watch one of the world’s great electoral-political spectacles - the New Hampshire primary - up close. It wasn’t by any means my first dalliance with American politics: I’ve had at least a loose involvement in the fascinating and frequently Freudian process by which Americans elect their leaders for several cycles now. But this time I saw the process through a slightly different lens.


My primary academic interest has for many years been - and remains - the impact that the digital revolution is having on our political discussion and decision-making. Much hype in this area surrounds the success of sophisticated, data-driven targeting of voters at a granular level, with special praise deservedly reserved for the Obama re-election operation in 2012. That the mechanics of this approach reside in the shadowy realm of algorithms only adds to the allure: the temptation to revere what we can’t fully see (and what most of us don’t fully understand) is strong. Yet from the perspective of organizers on the ground, “retail politics” remains alive and well in New Hampshire. Sure, the lists of exactly which phone number to dial and which door to knock on are generated out of sight and mind of people on the ground, and all the outcomes of these conversations are ultimately fed back into a centralized database. But the conversations count for more than the calculations which yield them.


The phrase “once every four years” has become almost shorthand for the antithesis of civic engagement - the most minimal obligation a country should expect from its people (or those able to vote, at least). But in New Hampshire at least it’s not difficult to see the seeds of a more fully realized democratic process in action. Young people get their first taste of activism. Small business owners get the chance to explain their priorities to putative presidents face to face. And many people find solace in the sense that by participating they are helping to reorient the country in a more favorable direction.


Yet to be sure, there are fundamental inequities at play too. New Hampshire is disproportionately privileged by its place in the primary election calendar, a historical accident compounded in its ethical implications by the fact that it is, in the words of one fictional candidate, “as diverse as a Mayflower reunion”.


Nonetheless, the thesis that election campaigns are a valid and/or valuable form of civic engagement seems like an interesting one to examine. To test this more robustly, let’s hold up as a yardstick ‘ten tenets of civic media’ as decided upon by my classmates and I in our first session. We decided on these collaboratively and (mostly) consensually using the InterTwinkles platform.


First, some of our criteria are clearly met in the primary election process. Primary elections are, almost by definition, “likely to incite or inspire change”, since they are geared towards electing a new candidate - at least when they are contested. It is also fairly straightforward to argue that primary elections “provide pathways to action”, assuming that actually turning out to vote constitutes action - no matter how ‘thin’ this might be. (And Ethan Zuckerman has convincingly argued why the ‘thinness’ of voting is itself a necessity.) I was also persuaded, at least in the case of New Hampshire, that the primary “fosters dialog” - mostly, for what it’s worth, of a civil sort - on the doorsteps of prospective voters; that primaries can “foster individual and community development”; and that the campaign “is not predicated on platforms alone”.


Yet the remaining seven tenets pose more serious problems for the idea of primary elections as a meaningful form of civic engagement. Some are up for debate: are modern elections “participatory, contributory and citizen-led”? The ironically-named Citizens United ruling has certainly enabled a very narrow segment of citizens - the super-wealthy - to take the lead, at the expense of less privileged voices. But consider this tweet recently sent by Clay Shirky:


“Online fundraising let outsiders raise funds, and it became a symbol of purity. Anyone *not* raising money at $25 a pop is now a plutocrat.”


Shirky’s contention that small amounts of money - typically donated online - are at least symbolically beneficial to recipient candidates emphasises the potentially participatory and contributory nature of modern elections, even (or perhaps especially) following Citizens. (And a recent the send-up of Bernie Sanders on Saturday Night Live suggests that Sanders’ oft-repeated “average donation” claim has become a popular catchphrase.) This debate also complicates the question as to whether primaries are “inclusive and give space to voices that are normally marginalized in society”, another of our ten tenets.


Yet the potential for the primary election system to “reproduce structural inequality” is harder to refute. Notwithstanding the unfair primary calendar already cited as a serious problem, on a more general level elections also privilege those with the time, resources and often education enabling them to get involved. It’s not hard to see how it would be these volunteers’ views and perspectives which are given priority by the candidates who receive their support. On the individual level, every new person getting involved in the political process is something to be celebrated as a counterweight to the influence of big money in politics. But in the aggregate, the precise makeup of this group of democratic ‘super-users’ is worth considering, in terms of the effect it has on the overall policy platform which results.


For similar reasons, the idea that the primary process “challenges power structures, normative culture and contextual assumptions” is tough to argue for, even in the case of insurgent campaigns. Finally, it’s not clear that election campaigns “are accountable to their users”, but, rather, are typically hierarchical in nature, even if local community (self-)organization is increasingly prioritized.

Overall, clearly primary election campaigns are not therefore the gold standard in civic engagement, at least judged by our predefined standards. Yet it was encouraging to see how, in certain ways, election campaigns nonetheless incorporate some of the principles and practices of civic media. The idea that campaigns serve as a relatively accessible breeding ground for young activists to get their first taste of community-building and change-making is particularly heartening. So while the current primary campaign might seem to be giving a platform to the very worst political postures and ideological impulses, it’s worth keeping in mind the thousands of ordinary people for whom this election represents the beginning of a lifelong journey of civic engagement.


Civic media
Categories: Blog

CMS.860: Intro to Civic Media | Week 3: Digital Inequalities w/ Guest Dr. Paloma Duong re: El Paquete and digital access in Cuba

February 20, 2016 - 9:38am

This week in Intro to Civic Media, we looked at models of digital inclusion and theories of digital inequality. We were joined by Dr. Paloma Duong who spoke about digital access and infrastructure in Cuba. Focusing on el paquete as illustrative of the "black" and "grey" market forces of Cuba, Duong challenged the typified "post-socialist" narrative of the internet and digital access in Cuba. 


  • Pew Internet & American Life, “Three Technology Revolutions.”  http://www.pewinternet.org/three-technology-revolutions

  • Paloma Duong, 2013.  “BLOGGERS UNPLUGGED: AMATEUR CITIZENS, CULTURAL DISCOURSE, AND PUBLIC SPHERE IN CUBA.“ Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies.  Link to pdf proofs.

  • Henken and de Voort “From Cyberspace to Public Space? The emergent blogosphere and Cuban Civil Society.” In The Revolution under Raul Castro: A contemporary Cuba reader.’ Link to pdf.



This weeks class began with a workshop on building models of digital inclusivity. Using the readings as a jumping off point, we were to try and build models that encapsulate the different factors that effect digital inclusivity. Breaking down in to three pairs, we each began drawing a model, and then switched twice, so that we all had to build on each others models. This encouraged us to break-down and adapt our ideas each time, reflecting on factors we'd missed and adding parts that were missing. We ended up with three different models of inclusivity.  Each model showed an interesting reflection on place, with national infrastructure, social surroundings and political climate arising in each model. This reflected the readings' collective emphasis on transnational perspective. It perhaps also shows how determining those factors can be in digital inclusion or exclusion. 

Building from Hargittai's 'Digital Reproduction of Inequality', all of the models attempted to move away from the binarism of the "digital divide" and into an understanding of digital inequality as an intersectional spectrum. This allowed us in one of the models to consider the variety of factors at play and the different weightings they hold in different contexts. Whilst socioeconomic status is an important factor in the digital inclusion debate, these models allowed us to take more intersectional approaches and build ideas beyond 'haves' and 'have-notes'. 

In this vein, Hargittai's conclusion that disparities in digital ability contributes to, rather than alleviates, social inequality, was a resonate note throughout the class. We considered whether digital inclusivity with bi-directional and in what situations it can be used as a negating factor for other barriers. 


Paloma Duong (MIT Global Studies and Languages):

   "Digital Media, Youth Culture, and the Public Sphere in Contemporary Havana"


Paloma began outlining the three core projects within her presentation:

1) Concepts in Comparative Media in Latin America;

2) Information and Communication Technologies in Cuba;

3) An Approach to the Digital Public Sphere in Post-Socialist Cuba


She highlighted Chaparro's idea of "digital segregation" which looks at technological dependency and investments in infrastructure as tied to transnational business. It allows us to posit the specifics of social and cultural histories as well as material conditions play an important role in digital access and usage. In the case of Latin America especially, the idea of an alternative modernity leading to alternative solutions is central. Latin America doesn't fit into the Western/Non-Western divide. Instead, Latin America is seen by some theorists as an 'extreme West'. Duong explains that the equilibrium of informal grey and black markets, including work markets, plays an important role in the consitution of Latin America, which often goes overlooked by international surveys. This includes state-sponsored or state-sanctioned piracy. Latin America also shows communal ingenuity in securing public utilities, navigating demands when the market and state fail to provide. Looking at two maps showing the telephone and internet underwater cables, we can see that where Cuba was central to the laying of the underwater telephone cables, when the internet cables were laid in the 21st century, Cuba was deliberately avoided. Today there is only one connection via Venezuala which remains a highly secretive state connection.


Duong explained how Cuba's digital segregation has both internal and external factors. These include the degrees of censorship, where by some illegal access of the internet is overlooked by state enforcement, whilst other forms are heavily policed. Internet usage can also be 'sublet' from one user with access to another. In fact, there are networks of gamers who use wifi to connect locally, offline. However if these networks are connected to the internet it can mean these groups are subjected to police raids. The neighbourhoods will have a few satellites which support these gaming, social and sharing networks. They are internally policed by the community and are not connected to the internet - no porn, no politics! These networks are free, but are password protected, and you can only enter if you have broadband to contribute and know someone who can give you the password. As such you ultimately have to 'buy into' the network. This ensures the connectivity of the network stays strong. There are methods of monetising the connectivity of the networks, where houses that block signals between antenna will try and cash in on the demand for them to be a node. Interestingly, World of Warcraft is really popular, but the networks had to rewrite the server code in order to access it from Cuba.


Paloma is interested in the ways these gaming networks and small entrepreneurs and cultural producers challenge, resist and complicate the post-socialist narrative. She argues that it is not as simple as 'the market is coming to overthrow the authoritarian regime'. The state and the market are complicit with each other in encroaching on notions of public space, property, invention and small business, and everyday survival strategies in communities. In her conversations with some of the gamer networks, Paloma found a sense of heterogeneity among the groups. They are mostly male gamers from similar social backgrounds. Paloma raises that culturally and statistically in Cuba the gender barrier to gaming is still apparent, with men dominating the gaming networks.


El paquete semanal or 'the weekly package' is a weekly 1TB hard-drive that is distributed around Cuba containing dubbed pop-culture TV series, including US and Japanese broadcasts, music and local advertisements. There is a theory that the government is in fact putting up the package, which is not confirmed. However, they allow it to happen because there is no politics or porn on the drive. Students of technology university's are privileged in their access to fast connections. Whilst they may spend their professional days promoting Cubist state propaganda online as part of their national service, in the evening they may pirate the technology in order to download and distribute this material.

There is a system in place where there are a group who are responsible for downloading the material, which in turn gets passed on to the compilers. The market-value of the paquete decreases throughout the week, so it becomes its own economy between the deliverers, friends and commnunity networks. The lucrative part of the paquete comes from the selling of advertising space rather than the selling of the paquete itself for 2$ a go, as it is a piracy network primarily. Promoters will economise the competitiveness of different artists in this alternative cultural market, as artists have to be recognised by the Cuban state. The Cuban state sponsors artists and material that they feel promote social values, where as the paquete market allows more subversive forms to circulate.


Here Paloma stated that this asks interesting questions of the public sphere; in terms of who gets to speak and when. Claims of copyright and digital property become contested in the socialist and post-socialist context. For example, one company copied the StarBucks wifi logo. The national artist of Cuba has a project where Internet access is available from the kcho estudio romerillo, however, the password is a slogan from the Revolution: Paloma is interested in the way this interpellates the individual by forcing them to perform this act whilst simultaneously connecting, perhaps subversively, to the internet. The question is raised between the local and underground economies of Cuba, in tension with transnational market encroachment and the post-socialist state.


Paloma asked whether it is better to have equal access as a public good, over uneven expansion? In other words, is all having less better than gaps in access levels? Paloma closed with the argument that this might be a false premise.  


civic media; el paquete; cuba; Dr.Duong; digital inequalities; models of inclusion
Categories: Blog

My introduction to Civic Media

February 18, 2016 - 7:52pm

I am a Master's student studying civic engagement and socially engaged art at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard and am excited to study civic media here. I'm new to the "media" world, and am nearly a luddite when it comes to digital skills. This said, it was a pleasant surprise to find that although I can't construct digital spaces, I can speak the language of participation, social engagement and organizing, which seems to means something around here.

Before landing in Cambridge, I worked with arts-based storytelling and educational programming in New Mexico. Some of the principles that I learned in that work, such as engaged research and multiculturalism, seem aligned with the basic principles of civic media. I am eager to learn about others, like transmedia organizing, hactivism and constructing democratic space; broadening my understanding of this discourse will, I believe, deepen my impact as an educator, organizer, and researcher in the field.

In our first class, we used intertwinkles.org to tease out ten points of unity around what we collectively understood civic media to be. I always love a collaborative challenge and am particularly tickled by consensus; despite a deep belief in deliberative democracy, my impatience often gets the best of me when it comes to group decision making. We deliberated our points and came up with just five minutes left to determine which statements were core concepts of "civic media". We got hung up on semantics, debated assumptions and struggled to locate accountability. I found myself trying to listen but watching the clock, seated anxiously at the edge of my seat. "Can we leave 'transparency' a bit ambiguous and move on?" I asked, hoping my frustration wasn't visible. "I just want to make sure we have time to address all the points put forward." Our group hadn't spoken yet (we were slated to be last).

Had my impatience come across as dominating? Did I prematurely shut down an important process for my own need of completion? Such questions can linger in the consensus processes and, in fact, I believe they should in the minds of those committed to social action and deliberative democracy.

To dance between action and process, listen deeply, speak honestly, and find a common path forward is a noble goal of social movements. I'm not suggesting that doing so is a principle of civic media, nor a necessary core tension of this work.

But, it's a good place to start.

Civic media
Categories: Blog

CMS.860: Intro to Civic Media | Week 2: Networked Social Movements

February 12, 2016 - 4:53am

CMS.860: Intro to Civic Media
Week 2:  Networked Social Movements



·       Alicia Garza, “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter movement” http://collectiveliberation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Garza_Herstory_of_the_BlackLivesMatter_Movement.pdf.

·       Castells, M. 2007. “Communication, power and counter-power in the network society.” International Journal of Communication 1(1):238–266. http://ijoc.org/ojs/index.php/ijoc/article/download/46/35

·       Costanza-Chock, S. Mic Check! Media Cultures and the Occupy Movement.

·       R. Kelly Garrett (2006): Protest in an Information Society: a review of literature on social movements and new ICTs, Information, Communication & Society, 9:02, 202-224. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=


Sasha’s class this week focused on ‘networked social movements’ and we focused on outlining some social movement and media definitions and exploring these in regard to the Occupy movement.


As such, Sasha began the class with a video from the Occupy movement. The video illustrates the ‘People’s Mic’ technique, where members of the crowd repeat what the speaker is saying in order to replicate a loud speaker without technology. Sasha states that he chose to begin within this clip as it shows embodied techniques of amplification within media ecology, the feat itself being recorded and shared within a trans-media environment, through high-quality footage on TV networks and shared across online broadcast platforms.


Starting with some definitions, Sasha outlines media practices as “things that people do with the media”, (Couldry, 2004).


The media ecology is characterized by the political economy of media system; the technical affordances of the current media and the structural privileging or marginalization of voices.


Social movement media culture is defined as the set of tools, skills, practices, and norms that social movement participants use to create, circulate, curate and amplify movement media across platforms.

Sasha raises the problematic of using “culture” as a loaded term.


Transmedia mobilization draws from Henry Jenkins’ concept of transmedia. It suggests the systematic dispersal of socialmovement narrative across multiple media platforms, creating a distributed and participatory movement “world”, with multiple entry points of organising, for the purpose of strengthening movement identity and outcomes. Sasha notes that Jenkins’ concept draws from Marsha Kinder’s development of transmedia ideas in the early 1990s. Kinder’s work focused on gendered consumer identity in children.


Sasha then turns to examine the media ecology of Occupy.

The Occupy movement began in 2011 with a poster in Adbusters. Adbusters famously use advertising repertoires to critique advertising and consumer culture. The poster emerged at the height of the Arab Spring and attempted to capitalize on the imagination and energy of that movement. On September 10th, hacktivist group 'Anonymous' puts out a video that calls for support at Wall Street. The video promoted the idea of mass occupation as a tactic of protest. The input of Anonymous created a new level of visibility for the Occupy movement, due to their circulation. Later, a video surfaces of police strategies including kettling and pepper spray, further increasing visibility of the movement, particularly a video of two, white women being attacked by police. In October, there's an arrest on Brooklyn bridge which sparks mass media coverage.


Sasha shows us an illustration of the media ecology using 'Page1X', which shows the bidirectional interaction between printed press front pages and social media attention. Spikes of attention in both the printed press and social media show that visibility correlates to "media events", or substantive occurrences on the ground. This includes the crack-down on encampments in November. Despite LA and Boston remaining until the end of the year, news spikes occur when the camps are displaced.


This analysis of Occupy shows the media ecology as a national and trans-national conversation, using both the self-produced media of the group and external coverage from the press.


Sasha closes by showing the origins of the Peoples Mic technique, shown at the beginning of class and made famous by OWS, in the WTO 1999 protests. As an act the Peoples Mic acts as a tool for solidarity through identity building, consensus building, and amplification. It shows how activist repertoires are learned and shared between movements, often by actors who themselves support different actions.


As such, when attempting to understand the media practices and media cultures of different social movements, Sasha stresses that it's not about a platform or a particular tool, but instead the strategies groups use with a variety different tools.


It’s also important in this regard not to erase the voices of those who have founded or contributed a movement. A discussion of the readings focused on Alicia Garza’s “Herstory of #BlackLivesMatter”. Garza’s piece records the erasure of the genesis of the movement, and by extension the voices of the queer black women who founded it, by groups who claim “#AllLivesMatter” or borrow the # without recognition of the movement that initiated it. Garza lays claim to the idea that the movement is specifically for all Black lives, and against the systemic state violence enacted against them.


Speaking of erasure within social movements brought us to Jo Freedman’s concept of the “Tyranny of Structurelessness” – the idea that movements that attempt lateral or horizontal decision-making in fact reify hierarchies and structural inequality. Cathy Devine offers a critical response to this idea in the “Tyranny of Tyranny” in which she advocates that strategic interventions can be made into “structure-less” movements which enable the structural rebalancing of power. Sasha mentions that Occupy made successful interventions of this kind, which put voices normally marginalized to the front of the queue.


As such, the class materials and discussion have illustrated how examinations of social movements must recognize them as complex, active and intertwined with the media ecology. Digging deeper into media practices can allow for more nuanced understandings of a movements media use. For example, Sasha’s survey data of an Occupy working group showed that less than 10% had recently used IRC channels. However, personal experience had taught him that the core media groups of the Occupy movement were utilizing IRC to disperse and communicate information. Who that 10% is, and what they’re using the IRC for, then become important questions that are fundamental to understanding the movement. As the class closes Sasha stresses that it’s important to understand these connections and strategies instead of taking a platform-centric approach.


CMS.860Intro to Civic MediaNetworked Social Movementsoccupy
Categories: Blog

reddit Moderators: Let's Test Theories of Moderation Together

February 10, 2016 - 10:01am

Are you a reddit moderator or the creator of software to support moderation (bots, browser plugins, etc)? Do you have questions about the effectiveness of your tools or your approach to moderation? TLDR: Are you involved in debates about the impact of subreddit moderation policies on your communities? Let's Talk!

Over the next few months, I'm looking for moderators, tool-builders, and experienced community members to design moderation experiments together to answer questions or debates that your subreddits have about moderation. If you are interested, send me reddit mail at /u/natematias or participate in the /r/TheoryOfReddit conversation about this research.

source: reddit blog

In the medium term, I hope to build software that supports moderators to run experiments to answer your own questions about moderation. For now, I'm trying to gauge interest and get a sense of questions that moderators have. As always, I promise to respect the anonymity of anyone who approaches me privately.

*If* enough people are interested, I'll start the process of defining some early studies together, working in the longer term to design a system that supports you to run your own experiments.

Who Is In A Good Position To Test Moderation Ideas?

While anyone can encourage their subreddit to test out moderation ideas, I'm reaching out to:

  • networks of subreddits
  • creators of moderation tools
  • groups of subreddits who have similar questions
  • moderation teams
  • individual moderators who want to brainstorm an idea they could present to their moderation team

In the long term, I'm also thinking about the use of experiments to audit the behavior of moderation bots, which could be done independently from moderation teams, but I'm starting out by reaching out directly to moderators.

Why am I reaching out to moderators rather than reddit itself? In my research, I'm trying to understand the work of everyday citizens to make a difference in our communities. Supporting moderators fits in with that larger vision.

What Questions Can Experiments Answer for Moderators?

Moderators already have access to plenty of analytics, and transparency reports like the recent r/science report show how much can be answered simply by looking at what moderators did in the past month. But those reports don't offer answers on the outcomes of new ideas or debated issues in moderation.

Field experiments (A/B tests are one variant) would allow moderators to test the outcomes (or effects) of a particular moderation idea. Here are a few example questions that might be asked:

  • What effect does a given policy have on the amount of modmail that moderators receive? For example: does publishing a transparency report:
    • reduce the workload of moderators
    • reduce reddit mail received by moderators
    • increase participation in community-wide decisions
  • What effect do moderation actions have on the participation of people whose posts are moderated? Do they change their ways? Go away?
  • What effect does a policy have on participation levels in the subreddit?
  • Does adding a policy to your wiki have any effect on subreddit behavior?
  • Does linking to a policy in your moderation reason have an effect on how that person behaves next?
  • What effect does a particular configuration of AutoModerator have on moderator workload? On subreddit participation?
  • In high volume subs, what effect does a policy have on the kinds of posts that appear at the top of the subreddit?
  • Does using a schedule to distribute the workload among moderators reduce the stress of moderation?

While it's true that I've done a substantial review of academic literature related to moderation, I expect that redditors will have much better questions than I do. That's why I want to collaborate on research that could have a meaningful impact on experience within your subreddits.

I also hope that if moderators are able to collect and share results on the effects of their moderation policies, it might help improve the quality of moderation across many platforms, perhaps reducing recurring social problems and even reducing the worst parts moderation work.

What Kinds of Questions Will Experiments Struggle With?

Experiments are only so good as our palette of good measurements for the things that really matter. I've written extensively about this question in the case of online communities:

In my past work developing statistical models together with redditors (which was just honored by CHI!), I found that redditors bring tremendous insight to the process of defining research. I've had more than one occasion where redditors corrected problems and pointed out important social limitations in what my models were estimating. I hope to continue that approach by working together with redditors on experiments. 

Why Should Moderators, Subreddits, or Subreddit Networks Do Their Own Research?

Other researchers, especially those who do platform-wide studies, have asked me why I think it's important to support moderators to ask their own questions. Why not just design one study that answers a single question for all subreddits, on average, and then convince the company to run that study across the entire site? Here are my reasons for wanting to support moderators directly:

Reason 1: Moderators have different questions. Not all of us can wait for a well-meaning corporate data scientist to ask questions for us. Moderators also sometimes have questions that platform operators could might see as uncomfortable or unimportant.

Reason 2: Moderators can work through ethics more directly because they share a social context with their communities. In many subreddits, moderators hold open discussions with their subscribers about policy ideas and are often more accountable to their communities than the average data scientist.

Reason 3: Knowing an average effect can mislead individual communities. Online platforms have a huge variation in cultures. Acting on platform-level knowledge can lead moderators toward actions that have the opposite effect from their goals.

For example, Moira Burke found in a 2008 study that polite posts receive more conversation in some communities, but in others, rude posts get more attention. There is no single answer across all the communities she studied for how participants respond to politeness. Is there similar variation on reddit? I decided to find out, with this question:

Model Details: In all models, I controlled for factors including post length, whether it's a link or selfpost, the poster's karma, the age of the posting account, and the previous number of posts by that user in the subreddit. The finding is consistent across negative binomial and fixed effects models that account for differences between subreddits. The 3 month window is the major weakness of this exploratory model. The random slopes analysis was confirmed with similar findings across a variety of methods, including an analysis of 1671 individual negative binomial models corrected for false discovery rates. See Gelman on multiple comparisons.

do posts by frequent commenters get more comments, or do newcomer posts get more comments on average?

It's a basic question that any subreddit might ask, as they decide how to relate to newcomers. I explored it by collecting all comments and posts from a random sample of 1671 subreddits across subreddits with at least one post from July through September 2015 (thanks, stuck_in_the_matrix!).

On average across reddit, and controlling for other factors, there is a positive, statistically significant relationship between the number of comments a post will receive and the number of previous in-subreddit comments made by the poster.

BUT WAIT: within a specific subreddit, the opposite can be true. To illustrate this, I fit a random slopes model to observe the variation among subreddits and found (like Burke) that different communities on reddit can have findings that are opposite (see the figure below). In some subreddits, more active commenters do often get more comments on their own posts, just like reddit overall. However, the relationship is also the opposite for many communities (to the left of the red line).

Browsing subreddits to the right of the red line, where posts by more frequent commenters receive more comments, I found fantasy sports leagues, marketplaces for videogame artifacts, and a community for in-depth discussion of international sport. To the left of the red line -- communities not explained by the reddit average, where newcomer posts received more comments, I found subreddits for learning new skills and ideas, as well as subreddits for sharing projects.

TLDR: Whatever might be true across reddit, subreddits have good reason to do their own research, because their community may be very different from the rest of reddit.

About My Research

My research with reddit moderators fits into my wider work on the role that everyday citizens play in shaping and supporting our collective online experiences. Since last June, I've been reading through the history of reddit moderation, interviewing moderators, and even doing data analysis on moderation work, including the reddit blackout. Here are some of my blog posts:

My first academic publication about reddit moderators has just been accepted (and awarded an honorable mention) by CHI, the premier academic venue in computer human interaction. Here's the preprint version: Going Dark: Social Factors in Collective Action Against Platform Operators in the Reddit Blackout.

Right now, I'm finishing a paper that tries to put a name to the work of doing volunteer moderating, where your work supports a wider, often corporate system, but you're also held somewhat accountable to community members and to other moderators. When writing about this "civic labor," I am focusing on moments of transition and tension for moderators, looking at internships, applications, elections, transparency reports, coups, bannings, and the blackout—moments that surface less spoken assumptions about what it means to be a moderator. I'm sharing an early version of this idea in my talk on "civic labor" at the Oxford Internet Institute this March.

Research Ethics And the Promises I Make To Participants

Throughout my work, I have a very strong commitment to respecting the privacy, rights, and well-being of everyone who is part of my research. At MIT, I have full intellectual freedom, and my work on reddit is independent of the company.

One reason I'm writing this post is that I am hoping that reddit moderators and other redditors will work with me to develop an approach to experiment ethics that can support the needs of subreddits to do data analysis while also respecting the rights of subreddit participants.

For an example of how I tend to approach my work, scroll down to the "Ethics" section of the post announcing the beginning of my work with moderators. Since I'm no longer at Microsoft Research, I will be creating a new set of agreements, but my values will stay the same.

The idea of creating a system that lets any subreddit or group of subreddits run their own experiment raises important ethical questions in its own right, similar to those surrounding A/B testing systems. I'm still working through those questions, together with legal scholars and research ethics experts. Brian Keegan and I have published some of our early thoughts in this workshop paper for the OSSM symposium. I am excited about the chance to develop these ideas together with redditors.

I look forward to hearing from you!

redditmoderatorsfield experimentsrandomized trialscausal inferencegovernancemoderationstatisticspolicyparticipatory hypothesis testinghuman centered data science
Categories: Blog

Roosh V shows how our society is not only misogynist, but racist too…

February 9, 2016 - 7:15am


Last week Roosh V’s planned visit to the UK was abruptly brought to my attention. Splashed across my social media, I saw that he had planned eight meetings for his avid followers in cities from London to Edinburgh. Last time I had the displeasure of Roosh infiltrating my consciousness was when I had watched, with ever increasing outrage and despair, Reggie Yates’ BBC3 documentary on the manosphere. This time wasn’t going to be any less infuriating…


For those of you who are unfamiliar, Roosh is known as a ‘militant pro-rape pick-up artist’. His self-declared “neo-masculine” beliefs stake monumentally ground-breaking ideas - from the 19th Century. These include that a “woman’s value significantly depends on her fertility and beauty”; that promiscuity in women is a “negative behaviour”; and finally that “socialism, feminism, cultural Marxism, and social justice warriorism aim to destroy the family unit, decrease the fertility rate, and impoverish the state through large welfare entitlements.”


As some-one who self-identifies as both a feminist and Marxist, I can say that I certainly do care about destroying the family unit - if it is a “family unit” from Victorian Britain. It is of utmost importance to reject the “family unit” as conjured up from the dark recesses of wretched little minds which stubbornly refuse to accept equality and freedom. I advocate for equality across sex, gender-identification, and sexuality. I advocate for rights of fertility, work, and welfare. I advocate against sexual violence in all its forms, including rape culture, and especially the idea that the way to get rid of rape culture is to legalise it (on private property). Yes, you read that correctly.


On January 19th Roosh announced his plans for organised meet-ups across the UK and the world on his website, Return of Kings. This was followed by a collective outcry on social media supported by shared online newspaper articles and eloquent blog-posts. I’d also seen the circulation of two different protest marches in Glasgow, where I had previously gone to university, and an online petition calling on David Cameron to ban Roosh’s entry to the UK.


Then, on the 4th February, only a few days after the initial outpouring of disgust, Roosh announced that the meetings were cancelled as he could not ‘ensure the safety of his followers’. I saw one social media user comment that the irony of these men feeling unsafe in the streets had been lost on them. And it had. Arguments for free speech dominated online spaces, with little regard for the infringements to women’s freedom these ‘rights’ would entail. A follow-up post on the Return of Kings site managed to incite some laughable conspiracy theories about the media and perform a poor reading of a Fight Club quote (NB: Davis Aurini, the point of the story is that you’re not supposed to blindly follow Tyler Durden, you absolute space monkey).


But if you can bare to get past the fragile masculine egos of broken Gen-X men, there is something even more horrifying in store. Dusting back those murky cobwebs we are greeted with the latent racism in our own reflection. Responses to Roosh’s visit were co-ordinated and publicised through online social networks, by brilliantly strong women and allies. But mainstream news coverage of Roosh’s visit and the resultant social movements across the UK to prevent it remains virtually non-existent. The Independent and the Guardian both have sassy online follow-ups, and even the Daily Mail have an online piece tearing into him. Yet we are found wanting in terms of extensive coverage or substantive critique. Substantive critique regarding the role he plays in our culture, the patriarchal values he embodies, and the sickness in our society he symbolizes. Symbolizes by allowing us to see there is no systematic prevention of a man who admits to date-raping women with alcohol (and shaming them for it) within poorly titled books.  


How does this compare to the near moral panic incited by our media about the Cologne attacks? The story of the ‘spike of sexual assaults by immigrants’ across Europe has been making the rounds through the printed press and mainstream TV news broadcasters. The sheer amount of coverage is staggeringly different. The framing is something else altogether. “Women are told not to go out at night alone” due to “migrant rape fears”, yet the gangs of self-confessed rapists Roosh planned to bring together are not mentioned. Roosh is a “loner” at worst, and this growing community is certainly not endemic of the ugly misogyny of our culture. Not only does this discrepancy in coverage and framing highlight how deeply entrenched Roosh’s manosphere arguments and rampant misogynistic values are in our culture, it shows our not-so-well-veiled racism: our refusal to address sexual violence unless it conforms to narratives that uphold heteropatriarchal norms, and white, straight, male privilege.


Laurie Penny wrote an article discussing how we must not to let the bigots steal feminism after the Cologne attacks. Roosh V shows how they already have. Action against sexual violence is only legitimised when the men at the top of our society don’t have to feel uncomfortable about it. Yet, here it is, staring us in the face in the form of Roosh V’s over 20,000 twitter followers. And you still want to try and tell me that feminism isn’t important in the Western world? How can we begin to fight for the equality of women globally when our society not only ignores sexual violence but uses “feminism” as coded racism and neo-imperialism?


Once again we are witness to women’s bodies being subject to the petty projects of nation-states and colonial reinforcement. It is not new that sexual violence against women enacts the drawing and contestation of cultural boundaries. Rape is often a particularly fine-tuned instrument of war. The female body symbolizes the home, the motherland, and as such it can be conquered, pillaged and torn apart. For those who spoke against the Cologne attacks but do not speak against Roosh, this is what you fear: another man on your property. You are as wrong as he is, and you enact another form of violence against the women you claim to protect. Despite still living in the epoch of nation-states and the failed masculine dreams of sovereignty and private property, women’s bodies are not symbols of your ownership, power or protection. You repeatedly violate them every day with your refusal to accept the on-going sexual violence deeply entrenched within our own ‘progressive’, Western values.


It’s not just the contestation of the boundaries of Europe that are being wrought in our blurry acceptance and non-acceptance of sexual violence. American rapper Tyler the Creator was quietly banned from the UK for lyrics he wrote five years ago, but it took a whole parliamentary debate to decide it is better to greet the notorious misogynist, racist and outright lunatic Donald Trump with ‘ridicule’. Is it because banning white, straight, rich men looks bad? This society is ridicule. It ridicules and undermines sexual violence experienced daily, in all it’s forms. It refuses to see it’s own disgusting misogyny and instead unsubtly dumps its masculine anxieties on the Other. To every woman and ally who put up a fight against Roosh V and his hateful organisation, I applaud you, your bravery and your strength. But it is not a fight you should be fighting alone. So much sexual violence in our society remains invisible. It remains today that sexual violence is only seen when the perpetrator is one society is comfortable seeing as a criminal, as a rapist. Given the still shockingly high sexual violence statistics across Britain, it’s time for us to take a long, hard look in the mirror.


misogynyracismRoosh VmanosphereukCologne attackssexual violence
Categories: Blog

Designing The Numbers That Govern Wikipedia: Aaron Halfaker on Machine Learning in Large-Scale Open Production

February 5, 2016 - 8:01pm

How can we engineer open production at scale, and what can we learn from feminist critiques of technology that could help us achieve those goals? At the Berkman Center this Tuesday (video), Aaron Halfaker talked about the challenges of scaling large-scale cooperation, the values that motivate efforts to keep that cooperation going, and lessons from Feminist Science and Technology Studies for maintaining large-scale socio-technical endeavors like Wikipedia.

Aaron Halfaker is a computer scientist at the Wikimedia Foundation. Halfaker earned a Ph.D. in computer science from the GroupLens research lab at the University of Minnesota in 2013. He is known for his research on Wikipedia, including the decline of participation on the site, the role of automated accounts, and systems to eliminate vandalism while supporting new editors. Most recently, Halfaker built an artificial intelligence engine for Wikipedia to use to identify vandalism. Aaron's work with Stuart Geiger and others has been a major inspiration in my own PhD research. I wrote about Aaron's PhD project last June in The Atlantic and blogged Stuart Geiger's Berkman talk in 2014.

Illustration By Mun May Tee - CC BY-SA 4.0

Aaron starts out by talking about his early experience as a Wikipedia contributor. Wikipedia is really big, with roughly 5 million articles in the English Wikipedia. To illustrate just how large it is, he shows us the list of lists of lists on the site, walking from sublist to sublist, to the point where you actually learn how to pronounce the name of an ancient Egyptian Pharoah. Wikipedia is also a wiki, a collection of documents that a wide range of people edit -- and edit they do. Wikipedia has around 100,000 active volunteer editors, who contribute to a wide range of topics and communities.

Today, he promises to talk about three things: Wikipedia as a socio-technocal system, critiques of algorithmic quality control, and infrastructures for socio-technical change, with a focus on the dangers of subjective algorithms.

These days, Aaron thinks about Wikipedia as a system that converts available human attention into output that looks like an encyclopedia. His work focuses on how this system manages inputs and outputs. As a researcher focused on computer supported cooperative work, Aaron looks at issues where social questions and technology questions are inseparable.

To illustrate the unique challenges of studying Wikipedia, Aaron talks about work by Robin Dunbar, who studied fishing villages and the limitations of their networks at around 150. Wikipedia, on the other hand, has over 100,000 participants. As a researcher, Aaron looks at the ways in which the infrastructure of Wikipedia brings together large collections of people for the work they do together -- you can't just look at the people or just at the technology in order to understand activity at that scale. That's why he calls them "socio-technical systems."

The Five Main Subsystems of Cooperation on Wikipedia

Aaron next takes us on a tour of the specialized subsystems that facilitate cooperation on the site.

One set of systems are focused on work allocation. He describes a quote by Eric Raymond that "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow." Visibility is critical to open collaboration, he says: we can get efficient contributions from people if enough people see things. His parallel is that "given that enough people see an incomplete article, all potential contributions to that article will be easy for someone."

A second issue is regulation of behavior. This is one of the most well studied questions on Wikipedia. But as an introduction, he says that there are two kinds of norms: prescriptive norms are rules about how you should do things; descriptive norms come from across the community. If you want to propose it, you can write an essay, put it in front of the community, and the community might vote on making it a formal guideline or policy. If a norm gets introduced formally, it's easier to enforce. One example of a formal guideline is the Wikipedia expectation of "verifiability" for contributions. He talks about his early work on the growth of informal regulations on the site, showing ways that people cite these norms.

Next, Aaron talks about the quality control systems on the site, which are focused on identifying and removing damage from the site. In addition to asking people to look at vandalism, the site has a fully-automated system for detecting vandalism. It's fast but it can only catch a small proportion of vandalism. Next, contributions are reviewed by a semi-automated system that organizes people to review them in about 30 seconds. Finally, the organization has "admins" who have the capacity to ban vandals.

Wikipedia is built by a large number of people, so community management is also an important part of the system. Each day, around 6,000 people join Wikipedia in some way per day. The site has a system that tries to detect good faith contributors from the bots and vandals so they can offer meaningful support to them.

Another system that facilitates the site are the practices through which Wikipedia reflects and adapts; unlike most other platforms, Wikipedia is led by its users. And so Aaron is accountable to Wikipedia users and contributors in ways that the typical tech company employee won't be.

The Rise and Decline of an Open Collaboration System
Aaron tells us about his early work on the growth of Wikipedia. In the early days of Wikipedia, everyone knew each other. But from 2004 to 2007, the site scaled dramatically, increasing to around 50,000 contributors. So the people running Wikipedia added quality control tools to maintain the site. Almost immediately afterward, participation on the site started to decline. What led to that?

To help us understand this, Aaron talks to us about research by Donna Haraway on scientists who were studying the same apes. The male-dominated science groups drew conclusions about reproductive competition and dominance, while feminist scientists drew conclusions about communication and social grooming. To make sense of this, Haraway developed a theory of "standpoints and objectivity" -- depending on your standpoint, you might think that certain things are important to understand and come to different objectivities. By acknowledging this, Haraway argued, it's possible to develop complementary objectivities that come from these different standpoints.

Standpoint Theory in Wikipedia

Standpoint theory can help us understand the problems experienced by the Wikipedia anti-vandalism system. Coming from the standpoint that Wikipedia is a firehose, bad edits must be reverted, and that they should minimize effort dealing with those problems. These systems led to a 90% reduction in effort and an increase in efficiency in reducing vandalism. But unfortunately, these new systems were forgetting to welcome the newcomers. In other words, the quality control efforts were overriding the community management goals. Building on the standpoint of newcomer welcoming, Wikipedia has been able to develop new initiatives like "The Coop" and "The Teahouse" dedicated to welcoming new contributors.

Aaron next tells us about a system called Huggle, which has been an essential line of semi-automated defense against vandalism on the site (I've written about it here). Huggle shows users possible vandalism and asks Wikipedians to rate a comment as good or bad. When a rater clicks the "bad" button, their comment gets deleted and they get a warning. Even three years later, the system doesn't account for newcomers who have good faith but might have made a mistake or might be contributing in ways that other Wikipedians haven't done in the past.

What is it about the technology that made it so stable that it didn't adapt to new knowledge about its weaknesses? Aaron argues that the problem lies in the machine learning classifiers that sit underneath systems like Huggle. These systems look at all contributions and decide if the contribution is good, bad, or probably bad. All three quality control systems in Wikipedia have machine learning, and all of them have the basic standpoint that led to the decline of Wikipedia in the first place. Developing new machine learning classifiers is *hard* and so people with an interest to develop new machine learning systems from different standpoints have struggled to successfully complete them.

Aaron is working on what he calls "progress catalysts," things that help people get started with alternative initiatives with less effort required. So he's been working on centralizing "revision scoring" -- the work of identifying exactly what is in a particular contribution. That's the thinking behind the ORES system, which offers automated measures of particular edits.

Aaron is working to extend the ORES system so that people can evaluate the quality of an edit, moving beyond Good/Bad classification to include "reverted," "damaging," and "goodfaith" machine learning models, hopefully offering a "progress catalyst" for others to develop their own responses to problems on the site.

Subjective Algorithms and Feminist Critiques
Citing Zeynep Tufekci, Aaron talks about how algorithms are increasingly making subjective decisions in cases where there may not be a right or wrong answer. Responding to Zeynep, Aaron talks about debates on Wikipedia where machine learning systems might learn cultural biases from Wikipedians and then keep out contributions from people who have alternative views. The Wikipedia:Labels initiative supports people to review and correct this problem of feedback loops. Aaron also talks about other feminist-inspired work, where he's moved away from building specific tools for people. Now as an employee of the Wikimedia foundation, Aaron focuses on developing infrastructures that make it easier for other people to do their own tinkering and ask their own questions.

Erhardt asks how Aaron handles the process of people proposing things that could go into the machine learning systems. Answer: Aaron often gives this talk at conferences and hackathons. Rather than ask them directly what features should go into the models, he asks Wikipedians what their backlogs are asks them to describe their backlogs. He also reaches out to Wikimedians who are central to communities across a wide range of languages.

Another participant asks how the social networks of Wikipedia participation are changing over time. Aaron talks about all of the implicit interactions that people have, even when people aren't talking directly to each other. He's been developing efficient datastructures that support people to collect data and ask questions about interactions on the site.

Question: you showed us an undesirable feedback loop. How could positive feedback loops be identified? Aaron talks to us about the WikiCredit project. Often, subject matter experts choose not to participate in Wikipedia because they can't necessarily be credited for their contributions. For example, if you edit articles that get many page views, it might be valuable, but the article on Breaking Bad gets far more views than the article on Chemistry. Halfaker is trying to work on a set of measurements that capture aspects of importance, it might help people evaluate their work in meaningful ways. He wants to create recommendation systems that will help people find articles where they could have impact. He also wants a way for academics to be able to point to the impact of their contributions to Wikipedia.

Erhardt asks about the biological metaphor that Aaron uses: we know that there are situations where immune systems go haywire. Is the standpoint problem part of the issue? Might the machine learning systems flash crash like algorithmic trading? Aaron agrees that these are risks as well, and for that reason, he's curious to think about the immune systems within complex systems-- he's looking for immunologists whoare

I asked Aaron Halfaker about the way that he's taken into account critiques from feminist researchers when designing new quantitative systems. Is there a way to include qualitative methodologies into the work that he's doing? Aaron talks about the importance of finding collaborators who aren't like him and listening to people who may not even be expert researchers.

halfakerwikipediaharawayfeminismstshcisocio-technical systemscooperationcollaborationgovernancemoderationdunbarGroupLensWikimedia ResearchORESmachine learningpeer productionsocial networkstechnology solutions
Categories: Blog