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.

  • A Meme Is a Terrible Thing to Waste: An Interview with Limor Shifman (Part Two)

    by Henry Jenkins

    What motivates people to participate in a memetic culture, either in terms of generating new meme content or simply passing along content that has been framed in terms of a meme?
    With regards to generating new content, I believe that three main types of motivation are at play—economic, social and cultural. The economic logic behind meme creation relates to the attention economy governing contemporary societies. In short, it claims that the most valuable resource in the information era is not information but the attention people pay to it. Creating memes seems to work well in this kind of economy: an emulation of a famous video may get attention because it will appear in YouTube’s suggestions bar or pop up as a highly relevant search result when one is looking for the original video. The second, social logic of meme creation can be related to what Barry Wellman and others describe as “networked individualism.” On the one hand, by uploading a self-made video or a Photoshopped image people are able to express their individuality: they signify that they are digitally literate, unique, and creative. On the other hand, the text that they upload often relates to a common, widely shared memetic video, image, or formula. Through this referencing, people simultaneously construct their individuality and their affiliation with a larger community. Finally, the cultural logic of meme creation suggests that it actually represents the continuation of norms that are rooted in the history of pop culture genres and fan cultures, as you discuss extensively in “Textual Poachers” and subsequent works.
    I think that the second logic – the social one – is also extremely important when passing along content that has been framed as a “meme”. Spreading a meme signifies that someone is “in the know”, thus reflecting positively upon her personality and (often) perceived sense of humor. 
    While there is a tendency to think of the content of memes as trivial or playful, there have also been some powerful examples where memes were used in the service of political speech — Pepperspray Cop and Binders of Women come to mind as examples from your book. Often, the same meme may blur the lines between entertainment and critical commentary.  In my essay, “Photoshop for Democracy,” I argued that such remixes might function as the people’s editorial cartoons, offering vivid and memorable representations of complex issues which broaden the language through which we discuss politics. Is this a legitimate description of what you’ve observed in terms of looking at memes as a form of political participation? Are there risks involved in the simplification of ideas required to produce an effective meme?
    Your argument about remixes as the people’s editorial cartoons is absolutely pertinent to the ways memes function as forms of political participation. The main new element that has been added in recent years, with the labeling of many of these Photoshopped images as “memes”, relates to our previous discussion about meme genres. The tendency to create memes in particular formats turns memes into powerful bridges between the personal and the political: people express their personal opinions while consciously joining larger pleas or patterns. A striking example of this quality is the “We are the 99 Percent” meme. Born out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, it featured an individual holding a handwritten text depicting his or her gloomy story, leading to the shared motto, “I am the 99 percent.” This combination of repetition and variation conveyed the message that people’s miseries are not just personal problems: they stem from systemic economic and political illnesses.
    As to your second question about risks—I believe that simplification is indeed a problem, yet what worries me more is the depoliticization of many memes, which come into the world as pointed political commentaries yet at some point turn into fluffy balls of amusement. For instance, alongside the political versions of the Pepper Spray Cop meme (featuring, for instance, officer Pike pepper-spraying iconic American symbols such as George Washington crossing the Delaware or the Constitution itself), other versions presented him spraying figures who are perceived as annoying, such as Keyboard Cat or Rebecca Black. In such instances, the original meaning of the meme as critical of Pike would appear to be reversed.
    You make a distinction between virals and memes in the book. Explain. Why do you think these terms are so often conflated in popular discourse on the internet?
     The main feature that separates memes from virals, in my view, relates to variability:
    while the viral mostly comprises a single cultural unit that propagates in many copies,  an internet meme is always a collection of texts. Therefore, a video such as “Leave Britney Alone” can be depicted as a viral video that spawned user-generated engagement and thus became part of an internet meme. Even so, this example shows that the border between memes and virals is fuzzy: Indeed, many memes started out as viral photos or videos.  This fuzziness is perhaps the reason for the constant conflation between the terms and the tendency among many people to use them interchangeably.  But I still think that even if the borderline is murky this differentiation is important: the simple act of “forwarding” or “sharing” is not the same as more creative modes of engagement with content. Moreover, the motivations associated with these two forms are not the same: the factors that lead us to share content are not the same as those that lead us to recreate or remix it.  In the book I chart some of these motivational differences, but I believe that much more work should be invested in this direction.
    Limor Shifman is a Senior Lectureer at the Department of Communication and Journalism, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  She is the author of Memes in Digital Culture (MIT Press, 2013) and Televised Humor and Social Cleavages in Israel (Magness Press, 2008 [in Hebrew]). Her work focuses on the intertwining of three fields: communication technologies, popular culture and the social construction of humor. Shifman’s journal articles explore phenomena such as internet-based humor about gender, politics and ethnicity; jokes and user-generated globalization; and memetic YouTube videos.

  • 3 Findings on Data & Design for Civic Participation: Tracking Donations via Email, Action Brokering Platforms, Voting With Your Body

    by natematias

    I'm here at CSCW, the ACM conference for Computer Supported Cooperative Work (full publication list here). This morning, our session is on civic participation. Brian Keegan started out the session, introducing the three papers.
    ==Understanding Donation Behavior through Email==by Yelena Mejova, Venkata RK Garimella, Ingmar Weber, and Michael C Dougal of Yahoo Research
    Every year, Americans give billions of dollars to charities, through many channels, including digital ones. Yelena Mejova tells us about research at Yahoo! to detect donations in email content, and use that to ask why people give money:
    Are some demographics more likely to give? Do people donate because the topic is interesting? Maybe requests for money are more effective, or donors' network, or some external influence, like a news event. Yelena does a straw poll; most people guessed that news events triggered these things. Among the other four, social networks were the most influential factors.
    To do this research, Yahoo! collected data from 480 charities, collecting the list from the top charities on Forbes and US News, getting top political campaigns, and looking for charities in Wikipedia Current Events. They also looked at Yahoo! Mail for users who've agreed to give them access, with hashed email addresses, for the months leading up to the last US presidential election.
    Participants were broken into three groups. Donors (~100,000) had emails from charities thanking them for a donation. Interested people got an email but did not donate. A general group is a sample from the rest, for a total of a billion emails.
    Some emails, of course, get classified as bulk or emails. The researchers were able to notice what percentage of
    The researchers got demographic information by correlating users's age, gender, and zip code to other information about demographics in their region. They found that Internet causes were more likely to be funded by men, while animal causes were more likely to be funded by women. Public media was more likely to be funded by people in more educated areas.

    Interest In Topics
    Maybe users donate because they're interested in an issue? Yahoo! classified the topics of email subjects, and they did indeed find that if you're writing and receiving lots of emails about a topic, you're more likely to donate. However, public broadcasting was an exception -- perhaps they have other means to contact their constituents.
    How effective were emails asking people to donate? Researchers computed the number of donations per day for each charity, broke them into low/medium/high groups, and then tried to correlate the number of solicitations to the number of donations. In 43% of the organizations, there was a moderate to high relationship between solicitation and donations: e.g. when they sent more emails, more donations came.

    Yelena and her colleagues also tried to calculate how likely users were to donate to a particular cause, after receiving a request. Here's the table

    Social Networks
    Is there a relationship between your donations and those of your friends? For each donor, Yahoo! looked at which other Yahoo! users people exchanged emails with. They found that if you're a donor, the probability that your close friends are also donor is much higher than just acquaintances. They saw this even in politics. Donors to the two parties had very few interactions with people who donated to other parties.
    External Influences
    To understand the influence of external influences, the team tried to correlate spikes in donations with major media events, like the national conventions, photo memes, and press releases. In the case of the conventions, Mitt Romney did bring in more donations during the Republican convention, but Obama brought in more donations during both of them.
    Summarizing the Results
    Combining these factors, the researchers put together logistic regression to try to predict if a user would be likely to donate to a charity. All of the coefficients (excluding external influences) are important, but the most important one is your friends. "For each friend who donates to a charity, the likelihood for the user to also donate to that charity goes up by 24%."
    Overall, email solicitations for donations do work, says Yelena. The most significant factor is a person's network.
    Daniele, who has researched Kickstarter, mentions that he's observed two different kinds of donation activity: first-time people who donate to one-off things, versus people who see themselves as investors. Yelena answers that the scale of this study didn't make it easy to look at behavior over time.
    ==Civic Action Brokering Platforms==
    by Derek L Hansen, Jes A. Koepfler, Paul T Jaeger, John C Bertot, and Tracy Viselli
    "How can we design socio-technical systems to facilitate civic participation," asks Derek. He tells us about the ACTion Alexandria platform, part of a case study of a platform funded by the Knight Foundation to foster local volunteerism. When the Brigham Young group thinks about civic participation, the example they imagine is the historical practice of barn-raising. Civic engagement systems need to take into account the people involved, the technology, as well as government regulations. Case studies like the one on ACTion offer an opportunity to explore all of these together.

    Derek outlines a type of system that he calls a "civic action brokering platform," systems that are more about brokering and coordinating action, beyond the use of speech. Other systems include Hey NYC, TakingITGlobal. In these systems, volunteers are willing to donate time or money. Non-profits and city governments provide actions -- opportunities to give blood, or donate goods to the homeless.
    The Brigham Young group was able to examine the first year of the ACTion Alexandra (Feb 2011-2012), a system that brokers actions and ideas alike. An action might be a request for people to bring books. Another example would be a request for brainstorms. The researchers looked at data and content produced on the system. They also interviewed people and surveyed the involved organizations.
    In the first year, few people participated in more than one thing. Most people came, did one thing, and left. 282 individual people took actions, out of 374 actions in total.

    Fundraising was more successful, especially when featured, bringing in $4338 dollars in item donations and $120,018 in monetary donations. Most of the non-profits weren't experienced at framing actions. Actions created by the ACTion community manager were very successful, while actions created by the non-profits themselves were not so successful.
    According to Derek, non-profits were successful at getting their constituents to go to the site at least once. Very few people returned, however.
    Asking for Ideas
    During the first year, ACTion published one or two requests for ideas at a time, asking people to offer feedback on proposed ideas in the city and suggest their own ideas. People could also comment and vote on the ideas. In the first year, 13 challenges solicited 187 ideas from 36 different people, and 5,440 votes by 1,120 people.
    The most successful solicitation for ideas involved a Spruce Up grant from Project Play. Participants were asked to use the idea platform to ask people to vote on which playgrounds needed to be renovated. The most successful requests for information had a "winner" that was chosen via voting, included more than one organization, addressed popular topics, and played out over longer durations.
    Problems with Idea Generation
    Although the system was able to include people who might not ordinarily participate, those who used the ACTion platform were non-representative of the community as a whole. Another problem was the low repeat engagement.
    Suggestions and Needs
    Overall, Derek suggests takeaways for civic action brokering platforms:
    Hire a community manager who has expertise in online marketing, and who can identify and frame actions
    Leverage organizations with existing social capital when starting
    Create win-win networks
    Develop strategies for sustained engagement
    Gary Hsieh at UW asked if there was donor fatigue among participants. Derek responded that the community managers didn't want to overtax people, so they lowered the threshhold, despite the fact that people weren't coming back to the system.
    I asked Derek if people were failing to return, despite repeated email outreach from organizations. Derek responded that organizations tended to only send out one request to its supporters. He reflected that perhaps if the platform became a gatekeeper for organizations' contact with donors, it might be possible to get more repeat visitors.
    ==Sparking Civic Discourse by Projected Interactive Poll Visualization== by Nina Valkanova, Robert Walter, Andrew Vande Moere, Jörg Müller
    What are the best ways to poll local opinions, asks Nina Valkanova. Nina puts forward the idea of "social visualization," arguing that visualization should be put into public spaces She directs us to her previous work on Reveal-it, a project that projected information onto public spaces.
    In the MyPosition project, people express their answer to a survey question on a projected screen by placing their bodies in front of a wall and raising their hands. An photo and silhouette image of their silhouette is taken, and their vote then is then displayed on the system.

    Nina and her colleagues deployed the system by putting it in a public space and asking people if getting a bachelor's degree was important to getting a job. They looked at the impact of identifiability on voting behavior and participation, the role of playfulness, and looked at the social interactions caused by the display. Over 5 days, they observed 880 daily passers-by, and had 445 observed participants. 6.1% of passers-by voted in cases where identities were obscured. 5.7% of passers-by voted in the contour case, and 3.9% voted when a recogniseable image was taken.
    The paper includes great discussion about voting patterns, social interactions among passers-by, and opinions about privacy. I'm especially fascinated that some people hung around and encouraged other people to vote in a particular way. Among the students, this nudging would often be humorous or ironic. Sometimes, people criticized complete strangers for the way that they voted. You can read more in the paper.

  • BYP Memo: Equal Protection? Race and Young People’s Attitudes toward the Legal System

    by Shantell

    The verdicts in the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis cases have focused increased attention on racial disparities in the American justice system, and according to the Black Youth Project’s latest memo, nearly three-quarters of Black youth believe the legal system does not treat all groups equally, a rate considerably higher than that for white and latino youth.
    The findings come from a survey of 1,500 young people ages 18 to 29 to gauge their attitudes toward the legal system and examine to what degree they feel fully protected under the law. Compared with 2008, larger percentages of young people of all races believe that the legal system treats all groups equally. The increase was largest among Black youth, of whom twice as many believe the legal system treats all groups fairly in 2014 compared with 2008. Only about 60 percent of Black youth report feeling like full and equal citizens with all the same rights and protections as everyone else, compared with 64.1 percent of Latino youth and 72.9 percent of white youth.

  • [Peer economy] Media's place as herald and tastemaker

    by hiDenise

    People are often boggled when I follow up my research interest in the future of work with the name of my M.S. program: Comparative Media Studies at MIT. Maybe you were just as boggled when the peer economy began popping up on the Civic blog. While I could go on about how economic security is the cornerstone for meaningful pursuits—including civic participation—here's a direct media tie in. The following is an excerpt from my thesis draft. 

    The Fordist framework1 is fraying quickly. Economic decline, technological displacement and globalization have resulted in a shortage of jobs that will not rebound. A powerful social contract is broken, leading Americans to question if investing in human capital—apprenticeships, internships, education, experience and technical know-how—is a smart use of time and personal resources.
    These conditions account only partially for why attention is shifting to other work models. Another powerful influence is former and current media portrayals.
    [In 1893] a Hungarian engineer started such a news service in Budapest and expanded it into a comprehensive entertainment service with outlets in the homes of its 6000 subscribers, each of whom had a timetable of programs including concerts, lectures, dramatic readings, newspaper reviews, stock market reports, and direct transmissions of speeches by members of Parliament. It focused the attention of the inhabitants of an entire city on a single experience, regulated their lives according to the program schedules, and invaded their privacy with an emergency signal that enabled the station to ring every subscriber when special news broke. An English journalist imagined that this service, if introduced in England, would … diminish the isolation of individuals in cities and make it possible for one voice to be heard simultaneously by the six million people of London. (Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918)

    It was a dream come true: In America, media was a synchronizing experience. The telegraph enabled the newswire services that filled in news spreads, and radio and television broadcast made it possible for a country to experience information simultaneously. However, alongside the Fordist framework, institutional journalism—professional journalism buttressed by media houses, journalism think tanks, academic curricula and similar institutions—is a 20th century product. Few voices could afford to rival major media houses since production and distribution were expensive endeavors for most of the last century. Thanks to technological innovations, media making tools are cheaper everyday, and online distribution channels—from blogging to Twitter to Instagram—have multiplied.
    Internet adoption has severely weakened mainstream journalism’s grip as the herald and tastemaker of American society. Opposite-the-editorial page, or “op-eds, ” were once written by a select few. Editors courted thought leaders and prominent individuals for their thoughts at a rate of one op-ed per issue. Now, opinions are everywhere. Even prominent news and information outlets such as Harvard Business Review court guest bloggers to flesh out their daily yield when they are in between print editions. In the midst of so much noise, news organizations have had to embrace diverse voices in order to retain audiences. Technology has disrupted more than just journalism; the Internet has disrupted museums and galleries, music and television production, fabrication and manufacturing, and dethroned other gatekeepers. Combined with powerful do-it-yourself/ourselves media platforms, the media scene has become a fractured plurality where no institution has totalizing power. In the case of work, this means no one institution will set the new de facto portrait of work.

    1 Excerpted from another part of my thesis: The famous industrialist Henry Ford did not invent the car. He was not the first to make use of the assembly line nor the first to pay a living wage; he was just the first to standardize them. "One's own employees ought to be one's own best customers,” said Ford, publicly positioning himself as a friend to workers. Although the real reason for a $5 daily pay was to reduce worker turnover and hold on to human capital, workers benefited from the tactic as other companies of the industrial age scrambled to keep up. Together, they ushered in a work paradigm that resulted in the growth of the middle class, an age where workers received dependable wages for a full week’s work. I refer to this as the Fordist framework.
    peer economyDenise's thesismainstream mediaMSMfuture of workenvironmentjournalismmediatechnology solutions

  • Workshop Stories from Minas Gerais, Brazil

    by alexishope

    A few weeks ago, part of the Civic Media team traveled to Brazil to hold a set of workshops in Sāo Paulo and Belo Horizonte (a city in the state of Minas Gerais) to explore how citizen monitoring might be useful in holding elected officials accountable for promises they make about infrastructure. See Ethan's post for further context on this project, and for a detailed analysis of some of our assumptions going into the workshops, check out Chelsea Barabas' post.In both Sāo Paulo and Belo Horizonte, we conducted three-day workshops. In this post, I want to give a brief account of the workshop we held in Belo Horizonte, as well as share a few profiles of our attendees to give some more insight into the motivations of our participants and their rich lives outside of the event. In the coming weeks, I’ll produce a few more posts to describe the Sāo Paulo workshop in more detail, and explain some of the design considerations that have come out of both workshops.The Belo Horizonte workshop took place in a neighborhood called Aglomerado Santa Lúcia. Santa Lúcia, a group of favelas, is located in central Belo Horizonte and is surrounded on all sides by more affluent neighborhoods. Many residents of Santa Lúcia feel simultaneously ignored and antagonized by their city government and the communities that surround them. For example, they noted that while the streetlights in their neighborhood were not maintained and the trash was not being picked up, the government was paying enough attention to appropriate houses and force residents to leave their homes through a controversial city program called Vila Viva (more on that later).The WorkshopVideo produced by Movimento Minas, from their post about the eventOn our first day together, we discussed the goals and priorities our twenty participants had, and how those might translate into something that could be monitored. The Belo Horizonte group had many goals and priorities related to housing appropriation, trash pickup, the accessibility of the stairways in their community, education, and sanitation. We talked with the group about how some of the more complex issues — education, for example — may be difficult to monitor, but we were urged by the community that just because such issues were difficult to monitor did not mean that we should not try. After this initial conversation, we developed a series of forms using Open Data Kit related to each topic. Some topics that people cared about were more straightforward to monitor; locations of trash or abandoned cars, for example, could be photographed and geo-tagged. We took the feedback of our participants to heart, and for the more thorny issues like education we developed a form that would allow our participants to record the stories of individuals who had been affected by educational inequality using audio and video recording.  On our second day together, we got feedback from our participants on the forms we had made, and did a treasure hunt activity using mobile phones to ensure that everyone was familiar enough with the tool for the following day’s activities. The third day was our busiest. In the morning, we split into groups related to the various interests of our participants (two groups chose house appropriation, and one group each monitored education, accessibility, and trash) and set out to monitor each topic with the mobile phones. We returned in the afternoon and printed out aerial maps of the area, as well as the photographs each team had collected in the morning. We discussed with the group how this data could be used to make arguments to various audiences, the first step in our continuing efforts to understand how data collection and visualization can help advocacy efforts. The groups presented their data to various fictional audiences: journalists, public officials, friends and family, and neighbors at a community meeting. The attendees at our Belo Horizonte workshop varied in terms of occupation and interest, but were united in their motivation to make change within their community.  Here are some of their stories: Bruno Da Silva  Bruno, 30, is a reporter and community representative on Minas Gerais TV Globo. He was hired as part of an initiative to surface stories of everyday life from communities across the state. He also teaches capoeira. He has lived in Santa Lúcia all of his life.   Bruno says that his job looks a lot like the idea of Promise Tracker — he talks about the on-the-ground realities of life in the favela and shares authentic stories from his community. Bruno says that when people talk about the favelas, they don’t tell the truth because they talk about them with a vision of people who live outside of the slums. “We have a lot of problems like the ones we talked about yesterday, and a lot of good stories too,” he says. Bruno tells me people in his community don’t feel represented on television. “It’s almost like physical and cultural apartheid, spatial segregation,” he says. He did a story about this topic once on Globo. “Outside of the favela, street lights are beautiful and organized. Here they aren’t broken. They are just turned off.” He tells another story about how he ordered a pizza, and the delivery man asked him where he lived — the man refused to deliver the pizza once he heard that Bruno lived in the favela. Bruno says it is impossible to change the minds of people who live outside of the favela because there is too much stigma surrounding the neighborhoods, but he thinks the most important thing is not to change the minds of people who live outside, but to make people in the community more aware and help amplify their stories. “Globo is a big company, very respected,” Bruno says, and he got the job just by being himself — he doesn’t have to dress fancy or speak correctly. “I’m more free than the newscaster William Bonner,” he laughs. Júlio César Evaristo de Souza  Júlio, 36, is from Morro do Papagaio, and has lived there most of his life. He works to prevent crime in the neighborhood, and also manufactures and sells t-shirts. In the past, Júlio was addicted to crack and cocaine, and was a drug dealer within the neighborhood. 5 years ago, he was released from jail on probation. “I came back with a very different mindset,” he says. He wants to help young people in the neighborhood stay out of trouble and find outlets to make money other than selling drugs. To do this, he tries to tell his story and tell young people what he has been through. Júlio says: “I always tell the kids, if crime was good, I would have continued doing it.” Júlio started working at a t-shirt factory when he was 12 years old. At 17, he started using crack and left the factory. Now he makes beautifully designed t-shirts which he sells, and works with youth to learn the process of silkscreening so they can make some money in a productive way.  One of Júlio’s custom-illustrated shirts  Beatriz Imaculada da Paz Souza  Beatriz, 36, is graduating in law. She works at the Department of Social Defense in the Minas Gerais state government. She tries to integrate different departments (the police and firemen, for example) to improve public security. She has lived in the Santa Lúcia community for 14 years. She works with her church on issues related to human rights and racial equality. She participates with Cris do Morro’s organization, UBRAFA (Brazilian Union of Favelas), in many activities to benefit the community.  At the workshop, she worked with her team to present the data they collected to explore multiple sides of the Vila Viva program — a government project that aims to move citizens who live in favela homes into government-run apartment-style housing, or give them money to relocate to other homes. While the program provides new housing for individuals, the homes are considered to be too small to accommodate families. Additionally, the amount of money the government is offering for people to relocate is not enough for many families to find a suitable replacement home. This was an important issue for all of the participants in the workshop, and one that they were most interested in documenting. During the data collection process, many groups visited homes of individuals who were being removed from their homes, to document the homes themselves and the stories of the inhabitants. Thanks so much to Ricardo Kadouaki for helping me conduct these interviews, and to the entire Minas Gerais Office of Strategic Priorities team for helping us coordinate the workshops! 

  • Quantity & Quality of Our Parks in Somerville & Cambridge

    by rahulb

    The following is a guest post by Namasha Shelling, who works as a Project Coordinator at the Harvard School of Public Health.  Namasha and I have collaborated to build on The Public Land Trust's (TPL) metrics around parks and communities. TPL published their methodology and results openly, and this post is built on that valuable contribution they have made!
    Park Quality: Why we should care, not only about the quantity of parks, but QUALITY of parks in our neighborhoods
    According to the Trust for Public Land (TPL), a non-profit that works on land conservation in the US, parks are known to reduce crime, revitalize local economies, increase physical activity, and in turn bring communities together. How many times have we heard this sort of phrase before? Not that it isn’t true… but it doesn’t matter how many parks your neighborhood has, if people don’t want to use the parks. 
    It isn’t the parks themselves that magically reduce crime; it is the actual USE of a park as a community in a neighborhood that in turn reduces crime. Parks visually demonstrate the sort of community one lives in. When a park has all the important facilities, such as benches, trash-cans, emergency stations, and playgrounds, and is also well-maintained, only then will people feel comfortable to bring their families to a park.
    In the spring of 2013, I took a class on geographic information systems (GIS) and needed a final project idea. A friend suggested emailing people and asking them, if they had any projects they were working on that needed maps. I heard back from one person, Rahul Bhargava, who mentioned his interest in mapping his own town Somerville, Massachusetts to determine its ParkScore (tm). And thus, the idea was born to determine the ParkScore(tm) of Somerville, where Rahul lives and Cambridge, where I live.
    Here is a map I made in ArcGIS of the parks in Cambridge and Somerville:

    ParkScore(tm) is a rating system created by TPL that measures how well the 40 largest cities in the US meet the need for parks. I used this rating system to determine the ParkScores for both Cambridge and Somerville:

    I determined the scores out of 20 for each category, acreage, services and investments, and access, by comparing the actual number for the median park size or spending per resident to the 40 largest cities in the US that have ParkScores.  For example, I had to find a town with a median park size less than 1 acre, like Somerville, in order to give Somerville a similar score out of 20. All the parks with median park size this low had a 1 out of 20, so I gave Somerville a 1 out of 20 for median park size. The same was done for all the other categories.
    Cambridge ended up having the highest ParkScore; it is even higher than San Francisco, which has the highest ParkScore of the 40 largest cities in the US. 

    However, it is important to realize that it is hard to truly compare Cambridge or Somerville to San Francisco and the other 40 largest cities in the US because both Cambridge and Somerville have much smaller populations and are much smaller in area than most of the other towns. In addition, the quality of a park is not really taken into account in the ParkScore, other than in the services and investments category, which does not take into account that some areas of a town have more spending per resident than other areas in the same town. For example, the areas around Harvard Square look very different than the areas around East Cambridge.
    I was curious to see if there were any demographic statistics that were correlated to parks in Somerville and Cambridge, like race or income.  Here is a map of property ownership in Somerville and Cambridge. The red colored polygons represent areas with the highest property ownership and you can see that a few areas stick out with low property ownership.

    Here is a map of minorities in Somerville and Cambridge, and what you see is a lot of those areas that have low property ownership on the last map, also have a high percentage of minorities in Somerville and Cambridge. 

    What is interesting is that there seems to be no significant difference between the number of parks where minorities predominantly live versus were Caucasians predominantly live.  However, are the parks of the same quality? And how often do people in these communities actually use these parks?
    I was not able to answer these questions using ParkScore, which is a rather static rating tool. However, with my new GIS skills I could create an interactive, real-time map, that allowed people to post and share with their friends on their smartphones when they were using a park in their neighborhood or when they discovered a new park, and the condition of a park, so that the city could send someone to fix a broken swing or an overfilled trash can.  
    This is the new civic engagement: putting the power of the collective directly into someone’s hand through new technologies that are easily accessible by everyone.
    decision-makingenvironmentlocal communitiesvisualization

  • A Meme is a Terrible Thing to Waste: An Interview with Limor Shifman (Part One)

    by Henry Jenkins

    I have to be honest that the concept of meme is one which sets my teeth on edge. Sam Ford, Joshua Green and I spent a fair chunk of time in our book, Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture, seeking to deconstruct the concept of “viral media” which has become such a common metaphor for thinking about how things circulate in digital culture, and along the way, we side-swipe Richard Dawkins’ conception of the meme for many of the same reasons. Sorry, Mr. Dawkins, but I don’t buy the concept of culture as “self-replicating”: such a concepts feels far too deterministic to me, stripping aside the role of agency at a time when the public is exerting much greater control of the content which spreads across the culture than ever before.
    So, when I first met Limor Shifman at a conference held last summer by the London School of Economics, she knew I would be a hard sell in terms of the ideas being presented in her new MIT Press book, Memes in Digital Culture, but by the time our first conversation was over, she had largely disarmed my objections. She’s done her homework, reviewing previous claims which have been made about memes, and reframing the concept to better reflect the practices that have fascinated many of us about how contemporary digital culture operates.
    Her approach is direct, deceptively simple, but surprisingly subtle and nuanced: she recognizes that people are making active and critical choices about what content to pass along to others in their networks, but she also recognizes that they are making tactical decisions about how to design content in order to increase the likelyhood it will circulate beyond their immediate circles. She represents the new generation of digital scholars, who came of age with the net, and have largely absorbed (and thought through) some of the core assumptions shaping its many subcultural communities and their practices.
    A part of me remains skeptical that given its historic roots, the term, meme, can be redefined as fully as Shifman wants to do — or more accurately, as she claims has happened organically as 4 Chan and other net communities have applied it to their own cultural productions. Yet,  I found much of what she wrote in her book convincing and think that this project adds much needed clarity to the conversations around memes, viral media, spreadable media, call it what you wish. If nothing else, her book provides an essential introduction to the ways genres operate in a more participatory culture.
    I welcomed the chance to talk through some of these issues with her as part of this interview for my blog.
    Let’s start with something basic. How are you defining meme within the context of this book? How does your use of the term differ from the original conception of meme proposed by Richard Dawkins and his followers?
    Basic question, complex answer… There is clearly a gap between the meme concept as it was defined by Richard Dawkins back in the 1970s and the term meme as it is used in the context of digital culture.  My aim in this book is not to redefine the meme concept in its general sense, but to suggest a definition for the emergent phenomenon of internet memes. In other words, I limit myself to discussing memes in the digital world. I suggest defining an internet meme as (a) a group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance; (b) that were created with awareness of each other; and (c) were circulated, imitated, and transformed via the internet by multiple users. So, for instance, I would treat the numerous versions of “Harlem Shake” as manifestations of one, particularly successful, internet meme. It is important to note that this definition does not equate internet memes with jokes – While many memes are indeed humorous, some of them (such as the “It Gets Better” campaign) are deadly serious.
    This definition departs from Dawkins’ conception in at least one fundamental way: Instead of depicting the meme as a single cultural unit that has propagated well, I treat memes as groups of content units. My shift from a singular to a plural account of memes derives from the new ways in which they are experienced in the digital age. If in the past individuals were exposed to one meme version at a given time (for instance, heard one version of a joke in a party), nowadays it takes only a couple of mouse clicks to see hundreds of versions of any meme imaginable  (try, “Heads in Freezers”, for instance J ). Thus, memes are now present in the public sphere not as sporadic entities but as enormous groups of texts and images.
    If you are going to change Dawkins’ original formulation so dramatically, what is the continued use value of the concept?

    The first answer to this question is that the term meme is a great meme. While widely disputed in academia, the concept has been enthusiastically picked up by internet users. It is flagged on a daily basis by numerous people, who describe what they do on the internet as creating, spreading or sharing “memes”.
    But there is also a deeper rationale for using this term. I think that internet users are on to something. There is a fundamental compatibility between the term “meme”, as Dawkins formulated it, and the way contemporary participatory culture works. I describe this compatibility as incorporating three dimensions.
    First, memes can be described as cultural information that passes along from person to person, yet gradually scales into a shared social phenomenon. This attribute is highly congruent with the workings of contemporary participatory culture. Platforms such as YouTube, Twitter or Facebook are based on content that is spread by individuals through their social networks and may scale up to mass levels within hours.  Moreover – the basic act of “sharing” information (or spreading memes) has become – as Nicholas John suggests in recent articles – a fundamental part of what participants experience as the digital sphere.
    Second, memes reproduce by various means of repackaging or imitation: people become aware of memes, process them, and then “repackage” them in order to pass them along to others. While repackaging is not absolutely necessary on the internet (people can spread content as is), a quick look around reveals that people do choose to create their own versions of internet memes, and in startling volumes. People repackage either through mimicry (the recreation of a specific text by other people), or remix (technology-based manipulations of content, such as Photoshopping).
    Finally, memes diffuse through competition and selection.  While processes of cultural selection are ancient, digital media allow us to trace the spread and evolution of memes in unprecedented ways. Moreover, meta-information about processes of competition and selection (for instance “like” or “view count” numbers)  is increasingly becoming a visible and influential part of the process itself: People take it into consideration before they decide to remake a video or Photoshop a political photo. In short, while the meme concept is far from perfect, it encapsulates some fundamental aspects of digital culture, and as such, I find it of great value.
    In Spreadable Media, we make an argument against viral media — and by extension, some hard versions of meme theory — for their reliance on ideas of “self-replicating culture” which strip aside the collective and individual agency involved in generating and circulating memes. What roles does cultural agency play in your analysis of memes?
    I could not agree more with the assertion underpinning your question. In my opinion, the problem is not with the meme concept itself, but with some of the ways in which it has been used, and especially those that undermine the role of agency in the process of memetic diffusion. In this regard, the argument that I develop in book largely follows the criticism that you raise in Spreadable Media. I call for researchers to jettison some of the excess baggage that the term has accumulated throughout the years, and to look at memes as cultural building blocks that are articulated and diffused by active human agents. This does not mean that people do not live in social and cultural worlds that constraint them – of course they do. Yet what drives processes of cultural diffusion is not the “mysterious” power of memes but the webs of meanings and structures people build around them. 
    Part of what I really value in your account is your stress on remixing and intertextuality within meme culture. As with all remixed culture, there’s a tendency for some to dismiss the lack of originality and “creativity” involved, yet you see these cultural practices as generative. Why is it significant that these shared genres or reference points keep recurring across a range of different communities and networks?
    I’m glad that you raise this issue as I find it fundamental to the way that memes work. While people are completely free to create almost any form of content, in practice most of them choose to work within the borders of existing meme genres. This ostensive rigidity may in fact have an important social function: following shared pathways for meme production is vital for creating a sense of communality in a fragmented world. Moreover, these emergent recurring patterns – or “meme genres” – often reflect contemporary social and cultural logics in unexpected and interesting ways. Let’s take, for instance, the “Stock Character Macros” genre: a set of memes featuring images of characters that represent stereotypical behaviors accompanied by funny captions.  This list of characters includes, for example, “Scumbag Steve” (who always acts in unethical, irresponsible, and anti-social ways) and his antithesis, “Good Guy Greg” (who always tries to help, even if it brings him harm); “Success Kid” (a baby with a with a self-satisfied grin, accompanied by a caption that describes a situation that has worked out better than expected); and “Successful Black Man” (who comically subverts racist assumptions about him by acting like a member of the middle class bourgeoisie). While each of these memes may be of interest in its own right, it is their combination —or the emergent map of stock characters that represent exaggerated forms of behavior—that may tell us something interesting about contemporary digital culture.
    Limor Shifman is a Senior Lectureer at the Department of Communication and Journalism, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  She is the author of Memes in Digital Culture (MIT Press, 2013) and Televised Humor and Social Cleavages in Israel (Magness Press, 2008 [in Hebrew]). Her work focuses on the intertwining of three fields: communication technologies, popular culture and the social construction of humor. Shifman’s journal articles explore phenomena such as internet-based humor about gender, politics and ethnicity; jokes and user-generated globalization; and memetic YouTube videos.

  • Youth Radio Wins East Bay Innovation Award

    by Youth Radio

    On February 13th, Youth Radio accepted the East Bay Innovation Award from the East Bay Economic Development Alliance (East Bay EDA).
    Youth Radio was the winner in the “Catalyst” category, which recognizes organizations that go beyond their boundaries to make partnerships and create change and spur entrepreneurial activity. The organization was praised for pulling together East Bay assets in new ways and catalyzing new thinking and processes.
    Youth Radio staff and youth participants were honored to be on the program along with Kaiser, Sungevity, Zero Net Energy, Aspera, Children’s Hospital and Research Center, Meyer Sound, Tech Bridge, and Back to the Roots Venture.Youth Radio Alumni Kenny Foster accepted the Award alongside Deputy Director Jabari Gray at Oakland’s historic Fox Theater. To learn more visit: www.eastbayeda.org.

  • Scaling the unicorns: Diverse perspectives that serve the public good

    by hiDenise

    In a room of urban planners, architects, engineers, data viz experts, designers, programmers, and media professionals, we asked, “how do we scale the unicorns?”
    Unicorns are those perspectives we need, the ones we easily demand but are hard to find. Women coders, technologists in local government, architects in humanitarian aid, geographers in newsrooms.
    Unicorns, by rahuldlucca on Flickr
    In this case, we were a room of open government, civic technology junkies. Some were former Code for America fellows, the hot coder-public partnership right now. We’d all seen disastrous public-private partnerships. Private will parachute in without a proper needs assessment or codesign process. They hand off a sophisticated tool that may or may not address an immediate need, but Government doesn’t have the capacity or in-house talent to maintain what they’ve been handed. Everyone is disappointed.
    There needs to be unicorns in-house! But there is a crucial cultural difference between public and private, which compounds capability: Government doesn’t hire for talent while Private is unicorn driven.
    I was in a room of architects listening intently to a former humanitarian worker. We looked at refugee camps and their impact as a holding strategy. The starting point was this: Humanitarian organizations’ most critical goal is to preserve and protect “bare life.” Once that’s accomplished, organizations shift all efforts toward the next population whose bare life is in question. In the meantime, survivors live in one-size-fits-all camp layouts stamped across host countries. Camps are usually isolated and have an enormously destructive impact on the environment. Refugees who leave the camp and try their luck in the closest populated town are denied anymore aid, and they are often scorned by host country nationals who view refugees as leeches. Some refugee camps last for a few months. Others still exist after decades, which means generations were born and raised in refugee camps. Camps can contain hundreds of thousands of people who are forbidden to work, whose social ties aren’t honored by camp layouts, and who may never be repatriated or relocated.
    Located some 300 kilometres from the first Malian town, and 400 kilometres from Tamanrasset, Tinzaoutine is 'a place where God does not exist', as one survivor put it, 'where there is all the suffering on earth'. Survivors described their walk for a week through the desert until they reached the first Malian posts, and their survival thanks to the milk given them by some nomads that they occasionally passed. —Michel Agier, Managing the Undesirables

    Preserving bare life is only the first step. Once that’s in the bag, we have to recognize people’s humanity.Spatial design can play a crucial role in that humanizing effort, creating culturally appropriate layouts without adding to construction costs. We need architects in humanitarian organizations, I thought. More unicorns!
    This isn’t to say there isn’t talent in government, nor humanitarians who wish they could do more. More than that, it’s about baking in the critical mass of diverse perspectives. Bringing it back to my area of interest—economic security that enables meaningful independence—I see one of the most obvious problems as debt and income insecurity. If the mitigating factor is enablement, what holds people back?
    It isn’t reasonable for government to offer competitive salaries or have the gamut of field experts in-house. Many of the brightest people in local governments are there because they care so much they can’t imagine not applying their talents as part of their civic duty. They knowingly take lower salaries, but not everyone who has the passion and the talent can afford to make those decisions. The humanitarian architect is probably a naive suggestion, but I believe they both share an obstacle, along with everyone, regardless of socioeconomic background. People are held back by their circumstances, and much of that circumstance derives from economic insecurity. Till we address that, we can’t began to figure out how or even whether we should scale the unicorns.
    codesignarchitecturehumanitarian workunicornsactivismenvironmentgovernmentlocal communitiesnetworks

  • Digital Cosmopolitans: An Interview with Ethan Zuckerman (Part Three)

    by Henry Jenkins

    You talk a bit in the book about some of themes we tackled in Spreadable Media – the degree to which more and more media comes to us because it is passed along by our friends rather than through mainstream distribution. How does this impact the challenges we face in developing a more “cosmopolitan” perspective on the world? What do you see as some of the limitations of “social discovery”?

    I see social discovery as a third paradigm in how we find information online. In the early commercial internet, we saw a lot of curators from an earlier generation of media taking their place in the digital world. These curators are very helpful in guiding us to unexpected discovery, pointing us to media we might not have otherwise found, but they have been challenged and unseated by an internet-age suspicion of “gatekeepers”, who silence some voices and amplify others.

    For much of the development of the consumer internet, search has been a dominant paradigm. In search, we look for precisely what we want, and we often find it. It’s a very rewarding experience, but it’s one with some complicated implications. It’s possible to surround ourselves with information that confirms our existing biases and prejudices, and to filter out voices that might challenge our preconceptions. And search demands that we know what we’re looking for, which is problematic, because we don’t always know what we want or what we need.

    Social discovery has emerged in part as a way of reintroducing serendipity into online discovery. It gives us signals about what our friends are interested in that we’ve not yet discovered, which allows us the experience of novelty and discovery. But what we’re discovering is what our friends knew, which means our horizons are limited to those of our friends. If we’re blessed with a broad and knowledgeable set of friends, this can be a very profound discovery mechanism. But for many of us, our friends have similar backgrounds and similar perspectives, and discovering the world through their shared media may reinforce our existing worldviews, not only telling us what we want and expect to hear, but persuading us that our perspectives are universal ones, because our friends share that perspective.

    I think that spreadable media escapes some of these limitations in that fandoms often bring together people from very different backgrounds around a shared media experience. Sharing a fondness for sumo gives me a point of encounter with people in Japan, Mongolia, Bulgaria and Brazil (four countries well represented in sumo at present) and the possibility to discover new perspectives through the encounter. But it’s possible to imagine other experiences of sharing an interest that leads you back to people you already encounter in your daily existence – I’m not sure my experience as a Red Sox fan broadens my social or global perspectives very much.

    You draw heavily across the book on your experiences with Global Voices. What has this project taught you about the kinds of human resources, processes, and technologies needed to facilitate meaningful exchanges across national borders?

    Global Voices has taught me two major lessons: the importance of face to face relationships, and the idea that cross-cultural communication is a skill. Global Voices is celebrated as a virtual community that somehow manages to bring 1400 people in 100 countries together to work on a common project. While that’s true, the secret of the community is that we invest heavily in face to face contact. The project started at a meeting at Harvard, and most of our important decisions have been made when many of us are able to be together in the same space. It’s ironic that a project about connection through digital media is so physically mediated, but I think that just reinforces how significant in person encounter remains in a digital age. I think a lesson learned from our experience is that it can be very valuable to combine short burst of face to face encounter with use of digital media to prepare for and deepen relationships. We’re big fans of introducing people online, bringing them together in person for a few days, then asking them to work together virtually for years at a time.

    Most of the people involved with Global Voices are bridge figures, brokering ideas and information between two or more cultures. I’m increasingly persuaded that this sort of bridging is a skillset that can be developed and cultivated. People in our community who are committed to some other form of cultural bridging aside from blogging or writing – living and working outside their home culture, working across different socioeconomic groups – tend to be our strongest and most productive community members. And people who work with us through the years, particularly people who work in different positions within the organization, develop a very strong suite of tools that allow them to mitigate conflicts and build new connections.

    As for the technological piece: we’re almost luddites at Global Voices. We used IRC for many years for internal conversations, and mailing lists. We’re reluctant to embrace technologies until they are very widely usable. But we’re starting to make some shifts. GV Faces is my favorite new project – it’s a panel discussion on an issue in the news, held via Google Hangouts and recorded for broadcast on YouTube. When we started Global Voices, it was hard to imagine that we’d see technology advance to the point where we could do a global video talking heads show, but that’s where we are, and I’m loving the outcome.

    You also draw on your experiences as a fan of certain forms of global pop music. To what degree might music circulate across borders that it is harder for news to cross? Does this movement pose a risk that the music will be exoticized, decontextualized, and misunderstood or does it potentially spark interests and connections that can lead to thicker forms of communication down the line? Might the same thing be said for other kinds of cultural products — Japanese Anime or Bollywood films, for example?

    Music is the easiest route into a new culture for me – I’ve listened to and collected global pop music since my teens, and my first trip in any new city is to the record store. There are many countries where I know nothing about the politics but something about the music. For me, knowing something about a country’s music opens me to learning something about the news or the politics – when I follow the rebellion and civil war in Mali, I’m thinking of the wealth of amazing songwriters in Bamako, and about the guitar playing of Tinariwen and other Tuareg musicians.

    There’s no doubt that music can be a space for appropriation without exploration. I examine Diplo’s use of Brazilian dance music in Rewire and conclude that he’s skating right up to the line, if not crossing it, in his work with MIA. But I also consider how a blatant, naked appropriation – Deep Forest’s use of “Rorogwela”, a Solomon Islands lullaby, which they repackage as “pygmy music” from the Congo – leads internet artist Matt Harding to seek out the creator’s family in the Solomon Islands and make a deep and significant personal tie. Harding found a piece of music he loved, learned the complicated story behind it and it ultimately led him to make personal connections behind the music.

    I think cultural media like music, movies and food are often a shortcut around the caring problem. I may know little about the Uighur and their ongoing struggles with the Chinese government, but I know – and dig – the music of Zulpitar Zaitov, and so I’m inclined to pay more attention to Uighur news than I otherwise would. I see no reason why this couldn’t work around anime or Bollywood, and suspect it probably does.

    You are now heading up the MIT Center for Civic Media. How might the projects you are developing there help to further address the challenges you’ve identified throughout your book?

    I talk in Rewire about a set of tools that can help us monitor our individual use of media and decide whether or not we are getting the diverse picture of the world we need. We’re building some of those tools at Center for Civic Media, using the Media Cloud software that I’ve been working on for years with colleagues at Harvard’s Berkman Center. Tools like Catherine d’Iganzio’s Mapping the Globe are designed to help us visualize the concentrations and biases of media coverage. Nathan Matias and Sarah Szalavits have built a tool called Follow Bias that helps show how many women, men and brands you’re following on Twitter and, perhaps, make a decision to change your behavior and follow more (or fewer) women. We’re also building tools that look at how ideas and culture spread globally, as with a tool like What We Watch, which maps global audiences for YouTube videos. Finally, we’re starting to build tools that help you add serendipity to your media diet. Catherine is working on a Masters thesis called Terra Incognita, which helps you monitor where in the world you pay attention to and discover sources from parts of the world which are unknown to you.

    Ethan Zuckerman is director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, and a principal research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab.  He is the author of “Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection”, published by W.W. Norton in June 2013. With Rebecca MacKinnon, Ethan co-founded international blogging community Global Voices. Global Voices showcases news and opinions from citizen media in over 150 nations and thirty languages. Ethan’s research focuses on issues of internet freedom, civic engagement through digital tools and international connections through media. He blogs athttp://ethanzuckerman.com/blog and lives in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts.