YPP Network Description

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.

  • Tracking the Rise of Anti-Semitism

    by Shawn Wen

    The attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue this past October was a rude awakening for many Americans, who were unaware of such virulent anti-Semitism in the U.S. It’s been over a month since Robert Bowers entered the Tree of Life synagogue and murdered 11 people there. Even as that particular event begins to feel more remote, the reminder that overt acts of anti-Semitism and hate exist in the US still feels very present.

    YR Media’s Oliver Riskin-Kutz spoke with Lecia Brooks, the outreach director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, about the current trends in hate and anti-Semitism, and what we can do to reverse them.

    This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

    ORK: This shooting took many by surprise. Prior to the shooting, had anti-Semitism already been on the rise in America?

    LB: The SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) has been tracking an increase in the number of anti-Semitic hate incidents and crimes for the past two years — but there’s been an increase for about 10 years, in this country and globally. This attack is not an anomaly, except in that it was a mass murder.

    Anti-Semitic acts are usually verbal rhetoric, like the trope of Jews being responsible for anything that goes wrong, as we’re seeing now with the migrant caravan. But we’ve seen an increase in acts too: bomb threats being called into over 100 Jewish day schools two years ago, the desecration of Jewish cemeteries that started immediately after that and still continues, up through [recently] when a group at a junior prom in Wisconsin took a photo doing a Hitler salute. And people are saying that [an incident like the prom photo] really doesn’t matter, when of course it does.

    ORK: What effect does the Internet have on the spread of anti-Semitism? Are people recruited over the Internet?

    LB: The Internet is great at spreading information. Unfortunately, still too many people believe that everything they read on the Internet is true. Google search algorithms are such that if you were to search for proof that Jews control everything, or are behind a “white genocide,” all you’d need to do is [type in] that affirmative statement and you’d get information that only validates what you already thought.

    Bowers was a frequent poster on a site called Gab. There are also other sites, like the Daily Stormer or Stormfront, places where people can feed their racism and anti-Semitism and find people who think like them. Research shows that people who visit these websites tend to feel marginalized — people who already believe that an increase in populations of color and immigrant populations is putting them on the losing end of society.

    ORK: What is the SPLC doing to fight this rise in anti-Semitism?

    LB: The SPLC is educating policymakers, influencers, and educators about the existence of white supremacy and anti-Semitism. With our research and publishing, we hope to shine a light on these bad actors and show folks that there is indeed a connection between white supremacy and anti-Semitism. People don’t necessarily link them, but with the massacre at the Tree of Life, people are beginning to see the connection.

    Anti-Semitism is connected to other kinds of hate. We identified 954 hate groups in 2017, of which at least 85% are white supremacist. And white supremacist groups are also anti-Semitic, because they’re in a tradition of Aryan purity, meaning Jews are not white in their mind. We want people to rise up against that and push back against normalizing biased, bigoted, and anti-Semitic thoughts and actions. That’s why we publish.

    ORK: What effect has the Trump presidency had on the rise of anti-Semitism and hate?

    LB: The President entered his 2016 campaign on a platform of hate. He began by demonizing Mexicans, and then Muslims. “Make America Great Again” was and continues to be read, as “Make America White Again.” I’m not saying that the President has expressed anti-Semitic thoughts, but he doesn’t speak out against them.

    In the Tree of Life example, he didn’t take a strong stand against the terrible act. He also promotes a white nationalist agenda with his-anti immigrant and anti-Muslim policies, which tends to fuel far extreme-right and white nationalist movements. They feel like they have a leader in the White House. He needs to reject that, but he does not. The desires of the white nationalist and white supremacist movements are being actualized by policies that come out of the federal government.

    ORK: Do you think any recent changes in national politics, like the House of Representatives turning blue, could have an effect on this rise?

    LB:  Any administration should have a check on power. It’s not good for our democracy to have all three branches of government controlled by one party or one leader. There’s been no check on Trump’s policies to date.

    We hope that will change when the new Congress is sworn in. It may provide a cover for those in the Republican Party who wanted to speak but didn’t, for fear of being marginalized by the president. I feel confident that the newly elected officials will begin to speak out, and demand that the president speak out more against the rise in hate and extremism in our country.

    ORK: What can ordinary citizens do to help check the rise of hate?

    LB: Each of us has a responsibility to speak out against hate, bias and bigotry. The hateful rhetoric that we hear every day becomes normal when we allow it to. We’ve all seen stories of hateful acts carried out against Latinx people, or Jews, or Muslims. We have to speak loudly and firmly against these acts. For all our criticism and critique of President Trump, it really is up to us to push back against the hate and reject it.
    The post Tracking the Rise of Anti-Semitism appeared first on YR Media.

  • Momma I Made It: Bumblebee Actor Jorge Lendeborg Jr.

    by Davey Kim

    Bumblebee Actor Jorge Lendeborg Jr. is Mr. Miyagi and a DC fan (#sorrynotsorry Marvel).

    Nyge Turner calls for backup in a mini ‘Agree To Disagree’ where YR Media’s Merk Nguyen argues DC dominates over Marvel. Who comes in and saves his day? Actor Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (The Land, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Love, Simon) who’s been glowin’ up on the silver screen. The fellow 22-year-old messes around with the Adult ISH co-hosts and gets into his G.O.A.T. animes. Jorge talks about his upcoming projects (Bumblebee, Alita: Battle Angel) and says if he could go back in time, he’d pull a Mr. Miyagi on his younger self.

    This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Check out the full conversation on YR Media’s Adult ISH podcast (episode 6 – Nerd ISH).

    Nyge: First question: Marvel or DC? Merk is tripping for thinking DC is better.

    Jorge: Look…I remember seeing Tobey Maguire be Spiderman and that was like the end-all, be-all. I was like, “This is the coolest shit I’ve ever seen.” So I’m gonna have to go Marvel.

    Nyge: Yea that’s what I’m talking about! I knew I liked you.

    Merk: No. No. No. DC came before Marvel — DC was like the OG number one pioneer of superhero comics. Marvel is great. But I’m all about the underdog. And hey, you never know Jorge — you could get a casting call for a DC movie.

    Jorge: Nah, I’m going to burn all the bridges right now. Marvel all the way. Freakin Iron Man had a drinking problem. I’m like 12 [saying], “Why is this guy so sad?” 

    Nyge: What is an acting role you really wanted but you but you didn’t get?

    Jorge: The new Mid90s movie. That movie was my life! I’ve been skateboarding for five years. I was definitely pretty bummed for like a hot minute with that one.

    Nyge: I hope this doesn’t come off offensively at all. When you first see your name, I thought it was Jorge (pronounced Horhey). But you pronounce it George. Do you get that a lot?

    Jorge: Yeah all the time. Why would that be offensive?

    Nyge: You never know.

    Jorge: Thank you. Respect. Respect. I get it. When I was in kindergarten, people would ask me, “Do we call you Jorge or George?” I was like, “Oh I like George.” So, since everyone gave me the option, I was like “George.” But now I’m all famous and sh*t, people are like, “Is it Jorge?” 

    Merk: We’re asking people what they geek out about. So what’s your fix, man?

    Jorge: Anime. My Hero Academia is destroying. I also like JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Devilman Crybaby, Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo…Ya’ll asked and I’m gonna give you the deep, deep. I don’t really watch TV. I watch anime.

    Nyge: You a dubs or subs (subtitles) person?

    Jorge: Everything subbed. But I don’t mind a good dub. Also, it feels like you get more lost in the anime with subs because they are way more intense in Japanese. Like, “Ahhhhhh! It’s a fight sequence! Where are we going? The sky is purple. He’s knocked out! Where am I!?” 

    Merk: So you’re in Bumblebee, the new Transformers movie that comes out this month. The CGI looks fly from what I’ve seen in the trailers, but I’ve always wondered what it’s like shooting those kinds of scenes. Do you just have to go off your imagination, or is someone actually there?

    Jorge: We had a guy on stilts who was up in the air like 10, 12 feet wide and he would stand in and do the blocking for where Bumblebee would be. We do that one time for rehearsal. Then, there’d be nobody there.

    Jorge: Next year, you’re going to be in Alita: Battle Angel. That’s the cyberpunk action movie based off of Yukito Kishiro’s manga. What’s something you want people to know about it without giving anything away?

    Jorge: What I want people to know is [this]: I know the anime community has been failed many, many times with their animated adaptations. But there was so much care [with this movie]. I want people to know that James Cameron had hundreds and hundreds of pages of notes going into this…I want people to know that this is anime adaption done right.

    Jorge: I’d be super Mr. Miyagi. I wouldn’t say anything. I’d be like, “Hey guy, figure it out. Bye!”

    Nyge: If you could tell your less adult-ish self one piece of advice, what would it be?

    Jorge: I’d be super Mr. Miyagi. I wouldn’t say anything. I’d be like, “Hey guy, figure it out. Bye!”
    The post Momma I Made It: Bumblebee Actor Jorge Lendeborg Jr. appeared first on YR Media.

  • ET Ep 7: Cosmonaut

    by Maeven McGovern

    Extra Terrestrial is part of YR Media’s Sonic Sphere. Produced by Michael Diaz. Graphics by Julia Tello.
    The post ET Ep 7: Cosmonaut appeared first on YR Media.

  • Adult ISH: Nerd ISH

    by Davey Kim

    Rick and Morty composer Ryan Elder spills the backstories behind fan favorites like “Get Schwifty” and “African Dream Pop.” DIY-obsessed YouTuber Lauren Riihimaki (LaurDIY) did not make her mason jar chandelier (gasp!). Bumblebee Actor Jorge Lendeborg Jr. is Mr. Miyagi and a DC fan (#sorrynotsorry, Marvel).
    The post Adult ISH: Nerd ISH appeared first on YR Media.

  • Race and Community Loss from a Teen Poet’s Perspective

    by Chaz H

    Leila Mottley, 16, is the 2018 Oakland Youth Poet Laureate. She talked with YR Media about what inspired her to write her poem, “Love Poem to Oakland.”

    The poem offers a look at the changes Mottley sees in Oakland. Watch the video to hear Leila’s perspective on what it means to live in a city that’s becoming more and more expensive.

    RELATED: Meet The Teen Poet Whose Love Letter Is a Call To Action

    To hear Leila read her poem, check out this video:

    For more about the Youth Poet Laureate Program: https://www.oaklandlibrary.org/teens/events-programs/youth-poet-laureate-program
    The post Race and Community Loss from a Teen Poet’s Perspective appeared first on YR Media.

  • Witness Describes Conditions for Migrants on US-Mexico Border

    by Emiliano

    Mexican authorities have moved thousands of migrants from a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, to a new facility farther away from the U.S.-Mexico border.

    Leticia Guzman works with a nonprofit called Border Angels and has traveled between California and Mexico to bring the migrants donations. The migrants are part of a large caravan that traveled to Tijuana from Central America.

    Listen to Leticia describe the conditions in the now closed Benito Juarez shelter.

    This weekend Guzman was at the old shelter, located in Tijuana’s Benito Juarez stadium, and said there were still some migrants inside. She said Mexican police kept people from entering with donations.

    A sign says the Benito Juarez shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, is closed. (Photo: Jonathan Pedneault/HRW)Migrants at the Benito Juarez shelter in Tijuana, Mexico. (Photo: Leticia Guzman/Border Angels)Migrants at the Benito Juarez shelter in Tijuana, Mexico. (Photo: Leticia Guzman/Border Angels)A girl at the Benito Juarez shelter in Tijuana, Mexico. (Photo: Leticia Guzman/Border Angels)

    “They stopped me,” Guzman said of the police. “They didn’t let me go inside. They said, ‘We are no longer taking donations for people.’”

    Guzman said hundreds of people were still sleeping outside the old shelter. She worried that the new shelter, called El Barretal and located about 11 miles away, may be “dangerous.”

    “It is in a pretty rural area,” she explained. Migrants “don’t know how to make their way around there, they don’t know who’s on their side, who’s not on their side.”
    The post Witness Describes Conditions for Migrants on US-Mexico Border appeared first on YR Media.

  • #Goals: LaurDIY

    by Davey Kim

    What’s trending? YouTuber LaurDIY says mason jar chandeliers and being your best self online.

    YR Media’s Merk Nguyen has got a naked room that needs serious decorating and Nyge Turner is hungry for a blue check on Twitter. So, who the heck is going to help the two reach their social media and decor goals? None other than do-it-yourself YouTuber LaurDIY (a.k.a. Lauren Riihimaki)! She’s been shamelessly geeking over craft kits since 5ever ago and is now makin’ bank showing the world her D.I.Y. projects. Basically, living her ‘90s kid dreams (and ours too). Lauren also shares some tips on how to get to verification / ultimate subscriber status. Hint: be yourself.

    This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Check out the full conversation on YR Media’s Adult ISH podcast (episode 6 – Nerd ISH).

    Merk: Were you a DIY nerd your whole life?

    Lauren: Oh my gosh, yes. I went through all the DIY kits from the early 1990s. Bless my parents! They still have all my “professional” DIY crafts.

    Nyge: A DIY closet? We never had a craft closet in the Turner household.

    Lauren: I think they just took a closet and booted out my dad’s clothes and let me put all my craft supplies in there.

    Merk: When did you realize you could make a living doing this kind of thing?

    Lauren: I kind of fell into it by accident. I was in university studying a boring program in Toronto and started a blog as a creative outlet. Eventually that transitioned to a YouTube channel [and one day I] got an email saying I could monetize my content.

    Merk: You’ve got high energy in your videos, but who is Lauren off camera?

    Lauren: Obviously you can’t be that high energy all the time. I definitely have a calmer attitude. But for the most part, I’m a pretty upbeat and positive person. That translates and [my fans] know it’s genuine.

    Nyge: What was your first big DIY project ever?

    Lauren: I was like 10 and made this entire Bikini Bottom city. There was the pineapple, Squidward’s house, Patrick’s rock. I’m so sad [my parents] didn’t keep it.

    Merk: Well that’s goals right there and perfect for what we’re about to go into. We find experts to help us reach our dreams and you’re here to help us with our #DIYgoals. We’re also going into double-geek mode with #SocialMediaGoals.

    Nyge: Can you handle this pressure?

    Lauren: I mean my hands are a little clammy, but let’s do it!

    Merk: So, my room’s naked. I really don’t have any photos of my loved ones from back home [since I moved], but I’ve got plenty on my phone. What are a couple cheap, crafty ways for me to get a little photo cray?

    Lauren: I just ordered a strand [of twinkle lights] for $15 off Amazon. You can get some cute little clips, then get some photos printed, and hang them from the twinkle lights. Pharmacies and Costco do photo prints for really cheap.

    Nyge: Walgreens has an app that I used one time in my DIY. I just hopped on the app and picked out the photos on my camera roll and had them printed.

    Merk: Note to self…

    Nyge: When you live on your own for the first time, you realize all these things you didn’t ever know you needed. What are some DIY items you can use for everyday living?

    Lauren: Mason jars are the easiest and trendiest. You can put literally anything in a mason jar and it looks cooler. It’s a good way to see what’s in there but also hold your stuff. They’re paintable, you can tie ribbon around them. You can literally do anything with them and they always look cute.

    Nyge: When do you think everybody will be like, “Oh, you’re still on mason jars, bro?”

    Lauren: I just bought a chandelier with mason jars on it, so hopefully not anytime soon!

    Nyge: You’ve got more than eight million followers on YouTube. What are some tips on making a channel that people actually watch?

    Lauren: The first thing is just being yourself. I know that sounds cheesy, but it truly is such a personality-driven website. Anyone can do a cooking recipe video, but it’s only different because it’s you.

    Merk: Moving on with our #SocialMediaGoals. Which platform would you say is the one we all need to be on to really feel connected to each other?

    Lauren: There’s pros and cons to every one and they all serve different purposes. I’d say Twitter and Instagram are tied for me. Twitter I think is more of like a conversation. Instagram is more of like an art space.

    Nyge: If you don’t exist on social media but want to get in the game, where do you even begin gaining followers?

    Lauren: I’m not going to lie, it’s hard. So many people are trying to get into the space that’s really oversaturated, but I think it’s just finding what you’re passionate about, building a brand for yourself, and making everything cohesive.

    Nyge: Then there’s this infamous mysterious world of verification. You have a blue check. How does that even happen?

    Lauren: I woke up one day and I was like, “I’m verified. Sweet!” I didn’t submit myself for anything, but I know now there’s a submission situation.

    Nyge: I really don’t even want a huge amount of money or followers. If I just have a blue check, everybody automatically has to respect what I say. I tweet something and they’re like, “He has a blue check. He’s obviously saying something powerful.”

    Lauren: I’m not going to lie. There’s definitely some perks. Like on Twitter, there’s a different tab that’s “verified”. So you’ll see an interaction with someone else who’s verified whether you follow them or not.
    The post #Goals: LaurDIY appeared first on YR Media.

  • We Literally Redrew Our Community (and You Can Too)

    by Teresa Chin

    By Ricardo Perez, Imani Jones, Tiffany Gresseau, Tatiana Cruz, Carissa Wu, Myles Smith

    All over the country, gentrification takes many forms, like rising rents, $4 coffee shops overrun with hipsters, flipped homes with reclaimed wood fences designed to keep neighbors out. Where we live in Jersey City, less than 30 minutes outside New York, we see it in the empty storefronts that line our once-thriving business district.

    As teenagers in Jersey City, we hang out a lot on Monticello Avenue, and it seems like the street has become a graveyard for small businesses. Former banks, restaurants, and bodegas with empty windows gather dust and graffiti as they wait to be filled by rich outsiders. The few mom-and-pop shops left on Monticello are dilapidated.

    While the community is changing for better in many ways, such as cutting gang violence and drugs, we risk losing the small, locally-run business culture that made Monticello so great in the first place.

    What if the people growing up here got to pick what goes into all these empty shops? Rather than sit around and dream, a bunch of us decided to get together and draw what our community would look like, if we were in charge. We even imagined the back-stories behind the new businesses we want to see. Slide right for the before-and-after.

    Jitaku and Kibaku- 90 Monticello Avenue

    We need diversity in food and other healthy dietary choices in an area where the only options are fried chicken restaurants and fast-food spots. New, affordable restaurants could expose us to new cultures and customs. One business we imagine is an affordable, artistic Japanese spot.

    “Move over Panda Express! Jitaku and Kibaku is the next big Asian food restaurant. Jitaku and Kibaku Imari are twins who came to America in 2007. The brothers always dreamed of founding their own restaurant and sharing Japanese culture with the world. Jitaku incorporates Japanese street food recipes into his dishes while maintaining their nutrition, while his artist-brother Kibaku hand-picked the unique Japanese decor, showcasing the work of obscure Japanese artists. For $5.99, enjoy a sushi platter of California, spicy tuna, and salmon rolls!”

    My Island-109 Monticello Avenue

    We’d love to see this spot turn into an immigrant-run business, reflecting the people who came to this country escaping persecution and hardship. In addition to the shops run by Hispanic and Chinese immigrants along Monticello, we’d also like to see entrepreneurs of other ethnicities get time to shine.

    “Jamal was a chef at storm shelters in the Caribbean during the 2010 magnitude-7 earthquake in Haiti. It was during this catastrophe that he met his current wife Jasmine, a Haitian caterer who lost her home. Jasmine came back with Jamal, and the two dreamed of opening their own restaurants in the inner city. My Island combines age-old Caribbean recipes to ensure the best Caribbean experience in the entire planet! The restaurant’s signature dish is the Caribbean Combo, a meal that includes a meat dish, a side, and a home-brewed exotic fruit juice; all for five dollars! Meals include papaya juice, conch fritters, potatoes and plantains, jerk chicken, roti, and curry chicken.”

    Sweet Cravings-142 Monticello Avenue.

    It’s hot here in Jersey City, and unless you happen to be near a roving ice cream truck, there’s nowhere to get a sweet-tooth fix. We like the idea of having a place to cool off and grab an affordable cone without turning to fast food or a chain. Plus it’s an easy hop from the local high schools.

    “This mom-and-pop shop satisfies your sweet tooth with a by-the-pound candy bar featuring the most iconic sweets and nostalgic flavors. Over the summer, look out for our fresh ice cream and self-serve frozen yogurt. For $3.99, you can get a large cone of Mary’s Mix, the owner’s special. Pick a selection of toppings to be blended into your favorite ice cream, creating endless flavor and fun!”

    MonticelloActive! – 108 Monticello Avenue

    Next up: an affordable gym for people in the community who want to maintain fitness and stay active all year around.

    “Are you tired of gyms that lock you into a contract and offer nothing but dull machines? MonticelloActive makes exercise fun. We engage our members with a top-of-the-line rock climbing cardio workout and an Olympic-grade obstacle course inspired by the likes of America Ninja Warrior and Wipeout. You never have to worry about our courses being repetitive, as we change the layouts monthly.

    A one-hour pass to MonticelloActive is $2, and $1 for students with a valid ID. With a $25-per-month membership for adults and $10 for teens, you can record your best course completion times and compete with other athletes for the top spot on our leaderboard! Inclusion in our HighFive leaderboard gives athletes major discounts on our products. And there’s even a juice bar!”

    LazerRaver-92 Monticello Avenue

    There are no arcades, laser-tag businesses or karaoke spaces in the area. Basically, the only options for teens are sitting around the house, watching Netflix, sleeping, and gaming. We imagine a business that would get teens out of the house in a supervised, healthy environment, where we could socialize in a healthy way with other teens. We’d also like to see a business that caters to all ages — kids and parents alike.

    “Experience the high-skill, high-thrill intensity of LazerRaver tag. Live through a half-hour adrenaline rush of action and excitement as you play the most diverse laser tag experience in the Tri-state area! You can choose the standard free-for-all game type or our Capture-the-Flag mode to take your team to victory! In our Deathmatch mode, you have 50 Life Points as opposed to the standard 20. Lose all of them and you’re out for the rest of the game! Pick among eight different classes, all with different weapon types and strategies that will keep you coming back again and again! In addition to our regularly updated arena, characters, and game types, we host birthday parties for upwards to 20 competitors, plus discounts on birthday cakes and pizza. Afterward, enjoy our retro gaming arcade and late-night karaoke festivals. LazerRaver is an unforgettable experience for all ages!”

    Plants & Paws – 91 Monticello Avenue

    Instead of seeing stray animals on the streets, we’d like to see a business that helps animals find homes. We also need more places for middle schoolers and teens to earn community service hours for our resumes, jobs, and colleges.

    “Tyler is an animal rights activist. He opened his first gardening store, Tyler’s Terrace, but was wanted to interact more with the young demographic. His daughter was an animal enthusiast who aspired to open an animal shelter in the inner city. The two joined forces to create Plants & Paws, a community garden and animal shelter whose number one goal is to serve the community. Plants & Paws donates all its crops and foods to homeless shelters and soup kitchens. The community garden is staffed by volunteers, giving the youth of the neighborhood a fruitful hobby. At the animal shelter, kids can care for the animals and advertise the adoption program. Plants & Paws takes pride in hiring teens to better the community.”

    Is your community gentrifying? Let us know if you want to redraw your neighborhood. Check out our pitching tool and then send yours to us here. 

    YR partnered with Jersey Art Exchange (JAX) on this project. JAX is a neighborhood-based nonprofit established to fulfill arts, cultural and educational needs in Jersey City.

    Illustrators: Carissa Wu, Tiffany Gresseau, Tatiana Cruz
    Writers & Photographers: Ricardo Perez, Imani Jones, Myles Smith
    The post We Literally Redrew Our Community (and You Can Too) appeared first on YR Media.

  • Can You Teach AI to Dance?

    by Radames

    In the same way a dog wags its tail or a flower explodes in full bloom, we express who we are through dance. But what qualities in music make us want to get up and move? It’s an instinct that feels profoundly personal and distinctly human. Besides, what motivates one person to put their hands up isn’t necessarily going to have the same effect on another.

    This makes quantifying “danceability,” or the likelihood for a song to urge us onto the dance floor, seem like an impossible challenge. So when Spotify developers decided to construct an algorithm—a set of predefined steps—to decipher which song is the best candidate for a good jam, they really had their work cut out for them.

    Artificial Intelligence*, or AI, is any system that mimics human intelligence by recognizing past patterns in human behavior and makes decisions that follow these patterns. The goal is to have an algorithm that would make decisions as a human would—an especially complicated task when applied to something as intimate, dynamic, diverse and culturally specific as taste in music.

    The specifics of the AI algorithms powering Spotify’s danceability rating remain shrouded in some mystery, shielded from view by corporate non-disclosure agreements. (Spotify employees declined our interview requests.) However, through a series of blog posts from former interns and employees, it’s known that back in 2014, Spotify announced its acquisition of a small Somerville, Massachusetts-based start-up called The Echo Nest. This startup was one of the first to make use of physical audio attributes like the beats per minute (BPM), tempo, and timbre of a music file to predict certain characteristics for a song, such as “danceability.” It’s likely that this was part of the foundation for Spotify’s current danceability score, which, based on elements including “rhythm stability, beat strength, and overall regularity,” rates tracks on a scale of least to most danceable.

    But, how reliable is this algorithm? Can a computer really determine something as fluidly defined as danceability? The developers at YR weren’t so sure… So YR designed a tool to help you compare your own danceability ratings to the AI-powered scores from Spotify. Our awesome six-song playlist is courtesy of the up-and-coming producer Edel, from YR’s music team. Rate all six, and you’ll find out how your tastes line up to algorithm—or don’t.

    What’s Danceable? Your Turn!

    *But wait, how does AI actually work? 

    Here’s the deal. AI is any method that automates a decision-making process in order to improve efficiency and result in more data-driven outcomes. Machine learning is a particular kind of AI that happens when computers are trained to “learn” to make certain decisions by observing many past examples of that decision being made either well, or poorly. Say for example, we want an algorithm to be able to make a decision on whether or not an image is of a dog. It will first need to get educated on what a dog looks like, by being shown many labeled examples of dog and non-dog photos. At this point, after having seen enough examples of dog images, it begins to set up some fixed rules about which features of the image are good clues that indicate it is looking at a dog. For instance, it may notice that seeing a floppy ear or fur-like texture or brown color in the image usually means it is looking at a dog.

    Once the algorithm graduates from training, it is deployed in the real world, where it needs to make decisions on images it’s never seen before, and use the assumptions it has learned in training to classify new, unfamiliar images. Note that if it learned that all dogs are brown and is presented with only images of black Labradors after training, the algorithm won’t be able to adopt its assumptions to adjust to that change. This means the assumptions of how features influence its labels, or outcomes, are fixed, and do not change over time. That is, unless we decide to re-train the algorithm, sending it back to learn about new examples with the desired label and feature pairing. The examples we use to train AI algorithms are thus incredibly important and really influence the decisions the algorithm will make in the real world.

    Which is why even for a playful concept, like danceability, it’s good to pay attention to how any piece of AI is trained. In the case of Spotify, The Echo Nest technology was initially developed at least in part based on ratings provided by a “passionate group of musicians and music lovers,” some associated with the elite conservatory, Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. Their passions and opinions may have played an early role in establishing standards that trained a platform for tens of millions of songs.

    “We built this project because we wanted to question the opinion of Spotify’s algorithm,” said 16-year-old Mila Sutphin, one of the developers who created the YR interactive. “Spotify has immense influence on people’s music taste, and if Spotify is telling people what is danceable, it starts to limit the range of music taste.”

    YR producer Kuya Rodriguez waxed philosophical on this point. “Music to me is a conversation,” he said. “Whether it be with vocals, with instruments, with sounds [or] atmosphere. Dancing is a response to that conversation, and I believe one of the purest forms of expression.”

    It’s difficult to imagine an algorithm that could truly understand that all-too-human expression. And that, perhaps, is a good thing.


    Shanya WilliamsTree MosesElisabeth GutaMila SutphinDante BrundageEdelRadamés Ajna + Asha Richardson

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  • We Got Our Own Dance Music – Mix: Only If You Dance

    by Maeven McGovern

    My “only if you dance” mix was a chance for me to show my interest in House music. I’ve always had a sweet spot for this specific genre because it always made me want to dance. Plus the way House music is made, it bounces at the same rate of your heart and I feel like that’s the science behind why it makes you move.

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