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.

  • Charlie DeTar dissertation defense: Intertwinkles and digital tools for consensus decisionmaking

    by Ethan

    Charlie DeTar defended his doctoral dissertation this afternoon at the MIT Media Lab. Charlie is a student in Chris Schmandt’s Mobility and Speech group, but has also been an active member of my group, Center for Civic Media, where he’s done very important work including Between the Bars, a platform that allows inmates in some US prisons to blog via the postal service. Charlie is an incredibly thoughtful guy, who takes the time to read deeply and develop nuanced understanding of issues before he builds new technologies.
    His work on his doctoral thesis reflects this thoughtfulness – in building “Intertwinkles“, a platform to assist in consensus decisionmaking, Charlie conducted a deep dive into the nature of democracy, decisionmaking, group behavior and technology to assist group decisionmaking. His talk today outlined that work as context for his intervention.
    Willow Brugh attended the talk and her visualization of Charlie’s remarks is below. My notes follow below her illustration.

    Charlie’s remarks start with the question: “How much democracy do you have left?”
    He shows a photo series of people holding papers with X marks on them – the marks represent the number of presidential elections the person expects to have left. The message – we don’t have very much democracy, if democracy means voting every four years. “Most of us wouldn’t volunteer to be governed by kings or dictators,” Charlie offers, but we face lots of non-democratic rule in real life: bosses, landlords, banks, other powerful institutions we have little influence over.
    High profile, democratically-governed activist organizations tend to have short lifespans. Even long-lasting movements like Occupy tend to be relatively short lived. But collectives and cooperatives use highly participatory methods and many have been in existence for decades. Twinkles – the practice of waving your fingers to show approval, non-verbally, for a statement – is a practice that originated in the 1970s and thrives today within collectives and cooperatives. But the in-person nature of collective and cooperative governance can be slow, expensive and draining. Charlie’s core research question is whether we can design online tools for democratic consultation which result in more just and effective organizations.
    To answer this question, Charlie has build a set of tools to support consensus decision-making processes, documenting the participatory design process used to develop the tools and evaluated these tools in their use by real-world groups. He’s also done deep investigative work exploring the history of non-hierarchicalism, consensus, and decisionmaking with computers.
    Non-hierarchicalism looks like a simple concept at first glance – it represents forms of governance that are decentralized, flat, leaderless, or horizontal. But questions immediately arise: are facilitators imposing a covert hierarchy?
    Charlie suggests we consider decentralization, using a definition from Yochai Benkler: in decentralized systems, many agents work coherently despite the fact that they do not rely on reducing the number of people participating in decisionmaking. While the number of people does not decrease, most decentralized systems require some centralization, as Charlie discusses by examining multiple models. The blogging platform WordPress is decentralized because you can download, customize and run the code, effectively becoming a chapter or franchise for WordPress. With Wikipedia, different sets of people work on different problems, editing different articles, in what can be thought of as a subsidiary model. In BitTorrent, rather than decentralizing resources, the founders have declare a protocol that determines how we interact, enabling decentralization through federation.
    Each decentralization has a corresponding centralization:
    - Bittorrent decentralizes servers via a centralized protocol
    - WordPress decentralizes hosting via a centralized codebase
    - Wikipedia decentralizes editors through a centralized database and policies
    - Consensus decentralizes authority through centralizing procedures
    Consensus decisionmaking is a field of governance, Charlie tells us, that works to avoid three tyrannies:
    - The tyranny of the majority, when the mob beats you up
    - The tyranny of the minority, where small group prevent functioning or dominate decisionmaking
    - The tyranny of structurelessness, where elimination of overt structure leads to covert structure via dominant personalities, racism, sexism and other forms of dominance.
    Consensus decisionmaking is the process of consulting stakeholders in a way that seeks to avoid these tyrannies. Charlie outlines seven forms of consensus, including corporate, scientific, standards, consociationalism (power-sharing), mob, assembly, focusing specifically on affinity consensus, groups of people who’ve chosen to work together on problems of common interest. He offers a matrix for how each form of consensus handles open membership, egalitarianism, formal process, and the binding nature of decisions. For instance, a corporate department that practices consensus decisionmaking still has a boss, and may not always make binding decisions. Not all groups are open – if I want to participate in the decisionmaking of Charlie’s housing cooperative, I’m going to be refused admission.
    In the process of building Intertwinkles, Charlie has developed a long list of protocols that people use to enable consensus decisionmaking, including various facilitation tools, meeting phases, hand signals, roles and formats. Intertwinkles implements several of these protocols in an online environment.
    To understand the history of digital tools to assist with decisionmaking, Charlie takes us back to J.C.R. Licklidder, who talked about decisionmaking with computers as early as 1962. Douglas Englebart, whose “mother of all demos” introduced many of the ideas that have dominated the next 50 years of computing, began developing methods of computer-aided decisionmaking in the late 1960s. The field was formalized as “group decision support systems”, generating a huge amount of scholarship around three systems, generally dedicated computing systems installed in “decision-support rooms” at corporations and universities. While these systems were very engineering-heavy, they often used very similar techniques to those used in consensus-oriented groups. However, it is difficult to extrapolate from the scholarship, because the vast majority of studies used artificial, composed groups, not groups with existing histories and patterns. Most were face to face and most were one-shot experiments. These methodological limitations make it hard to extrapolate to understand the utility of these tools for affinity groups, which have important existing relationships, group histories and policies.
    Charlie notes that these early group decisionmaking support tools tended to provide all services – including email – to their users, because they were huge, expensive systems that often represented an organization’s first exposure to digital communication. Now systems are smaller and decentralized, including tools like Doodle (used for meeting scheduling) and Loomio, a new system designed to support discussion of proposals in forums and voting on those proposals.
    While these systems are promising, Charlie hopes we can do more. He notes that Joseph McGrath put forward a helpful typology of group tasks in his 1984 book, Groups, Interaction and Performance. Ideally, we’d want a system that helps groups engage in each of these tasks – generating ideas, generating plans, executing tasks, etc.
    Intertwinkles began as a participatory design project with Boston cooperative housing groups. Charlie recruited six houses from 29 collective and cooperative housing groups and hired three research assistants who were “native participants”, residents in the houses. 45 people participated, overall.
    The groups he worked with were involved throughout a field trial process, from pre-interviews to help understand how groups made decision, through an extensive training session on the tools and for 8-10 weeks of usage, as Charlie and his team iterated to improve the tools with feedback from users. The process involved both the creation of new tools and a pair of games designed to inspire conversation and reflection on group dynamics, Flame War (which models decisionmaking over email) and Moontalk (a realtime game that models limited communication channels). More information on both games is available on the Intertwinkles site.
    Charlie offers brief overviews of three tools. Dotstorm is based around sticky note brainstorming, and supports visual thinkers through stickies with drawings and with photos taken through laptops or other devices. The system supports real-time collaboration and sharing of ideas and runs on any contemporary web browser. Resolve supports a rolling proposal process, which allows one member of a group to propose an idea and others to expand, refine or block it, eventually voting on accepting it. The system maintains a rich history of a proposal and uses a notification system to keep participants involved in the process, but lets participants use email as their channel for free-form discussion. Points of Unity is a tool designed to help come up with a short list of values or statements that a group agrees with, which many groups find useful as a mutually agreed-upon common ground.
    Many of the features of Intertwinkles are platform features shared across tools. There’s a group-centric sharing model that gives people access to documents and resources once they join the group. Membership is reciprocal (like membership in Facebook) and overlapping (you are friends with everyone in the group), a model that Charlie hasn’t seen in Facebook, Twitter or other systems. Everything is shared publicly for discrete periods of time, which lowers the barrier to entry to the system, but then reverts documents to private to avoid spam, etc. Users can take actions on behalf of other members of the group, recognizing that not everyone is active online constantly. There is rich, semantic event reporting, which allows for a “quantified group” analysis, understanding and describing a group’s behavior in quantifiable terms about participation. Intertwinkles is built on a plug-in architecture. Core services handle search, authentication, twinkles, events, notices, groups – other features plug into those core services, which makes it possible to develop radically new tools without building up the other essential components.
    For the system to work, Charlie believes that participants need extensive training. What’s key is getting to the point where everyone is confident that everyone else is comfortable with the tools. To remind collectives of the tool, Charlie distributed a colorful pillow, a Twinkle Plush Star, as “an ambient reminder of the system and its uses.”
    Five of the six groups used the tool, completing 66 processes and making 2155 unique edits and visits. One group didn’t use Intertwinkles beyond training, and one reported neutral to negative experiences, while the other four groups had generally positive reactions. Charlie measured the participation of each cooperative member with the system because he worried there might be uneven participation. His analysis suggests quite even participation, similar to what you might get face to face.
    In examining how collectives used the system, Charlie reminds us of the idea of “technology in action”, proposed by proponents of structuration theory. This theory suggests that designers build tools for certain tasks, but the tools get used for whatever tasks a group wants to carry out, which leads to unexpected outcomes, sometimes contrary to designer’s intentions. Charlie makes his intentions clear: he wanted to make non-participation apparent, to increase awareness of conflict, to make group processes explicit, and to handle facilitation “out of band”.
    He sees a correlation in satisfaction with the tool and group structure. Groups that had more confrontive approaches to decisionaking and more formal approaches to decisionmaking had better results with the tools. The group that was least satisfied tends to be avoidant of conflict and privileges action over speaking. A group that found the tools most useful makes participation in house meetings mandatory, has explicit channels for communication on conflict, and extensive house norms. This highly structured group was able to take advantage of the system in ways less structured groups did not.
    Charlie sees room to improve the tools: more work on in-band facilitation, in-band training,instrumenting the platform for online learning, and building an ecosystem of developers. He plans to continue working on the tool and already sees possible alliances to build the platform in conjunction with others building tools for group decisionmaking. But he also sees value in the theoretical approach, suggesting that design research is powerful as a form of sociology and a potential quantitative and qualitative method for studying group behavior.

  • On MIT’s report on Aaron Swartz’s prosecution

    by Ethan

    Hal Abelson’s report on MIT’s actions around Aaron Swartz’s prosecution was released last week. I was on vacation and offline – I returned home Sunday and read the report and some of the responses to it.
    I certainly see why Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman called it a whitewash. For those hoping that Abelson and his colleagues would identify faults in MIT’s behavior and take responsibility for inaction, the report is deeply disappointing. One of the strongest statements in the report makes in conclusion is, ultimately, quite weak:
    “…let us all recognize that, by responding as we did, MIT missed an opportunity to demonstrate the leadership we pride ourselves on.”
    That’s a bit of an understatement. The report includes an entire section (Part IV) on opportunities MIT missed, places where MIT could have intervened and might have helped prevent a tragedy. While the report correctly notes that we can’t know how things would have turned out had MIT responded to Robert Swartz’s repeated requests for the Institute to make a statement similar to the one JSTOR made, it’s clear that MIT didn’t just miss an opportunity – it consciously and repeatedly decided not to take any actions that would have helped Aaron Swartz make a successful defense while cooperating fully with requests from prosecutors.
    As such, I don’t think the report is a “whitewash”. I don’t think Abelson is trying to conceal details that cast MIT in a bad light – it’s hard to read the report without being deeply disappointed with how MIT makes decisions. By my reading, the report documents a troubling culture of leadership at the university, one where adherence to the (ultimately flawed) idea of “neutrality” overrides making a nuanced decision about how to respond to aggressive prosecution under a poorly written law.
    There’s lots I’m angry about with the report. It ends with questions for the MIT community to consider, rather than recommendations. This isn’t the fault of Abelson and colleagues, but the ambit given Abelson by MIT’s President, Rafael Reif. While the report makes clear that MIT cooperated more thoroughly with prosecutors than with Aaron’s defense (and carefully explains why MIT’s “neutral” stance ends up favoring the side that had more power in the equation), it doesn’t lay blame on MIT’s general counsel or any other individuals for MIT’s failure of leadership.
    For me, the biggest disappointment is a refrain throughout the report that blames the MIT community for failing to draw more attention to Swartz’s prosecution. In Part V, the authors note, “Before Aaron Swartz’s suicide, the community paid scant attention to the matter, other than during the period immediately following his arrest. Few students, faculty, or alumni expressed concerns to the administration.”
    It’s certainly true that there was more anger and attention in the wake of Aaron’s suicide than there was during the indictment and period leading towards trial. But it’s not true that the community was unaware of Aaron’s plight. As the report documents, Joi Ito, director of MIT’s Media Lab, asked MIT’s leadership to see if Aaron’s case could be settled as a “family matter” within the MIT community. Two other faculty members spoke to the administration and Robert Swartz, who works for the Media Lab, approached MIT multiple times, seeking a statement that MIT did not believe Swartz should be prosecuted for his actions.
    There are reasons why those of us who were aware of Aaron’s case didn’t lobby MIT more loudly. As the report notes, just following the statement about “scant attention”: “Those most familiar with Aaron Swartz and the issues that greatly concerned him were divided in their views of the propriety of his action downloading JSTOR files, and fearful of harming his situation by taking public or private stands.” This fear was compounded by the fact that it was very difficult for Aaron and those closest to him to talk about the case without creating communications that could be subpoenaed by the prosecutor, which led him to discuss the case with very few people. Also, as the report reveals, an early attempt to draw action to the case online led to an angry reaction from prosecutor Steve Heymann. Given that Aaron and his team were seeking a plea deal with a prosecutor who already escalating charges against Aaron, it’s understandable that people were worried about harming Aaron’s situation by making noise.
    Blaming the MIT community’s lack for response for MIT’s studied inaction is, for me, is an embarrassing evasion of responsibility, an admission that MIT was less interested in doing the right thing than in avoiding the sort of negative publicity it faced when it failed to support Star Simpson when she faced prosecution for wearing an LED-enhanced hoodie to Logan Airport.
    It’s helpful to understand why MIT’s leadership did what it did. It’s understandable that, before they knew who was accessing JSTOR that they sought help from the Cambridge PD, which ended up bringing the Secret Service into the case. But for well over a year, MIT knew that its network had been accessed by a committed activist who was most likely making a political statement, not attempting to sell JSTOR to the highest bidder. They were extensively lobbied by a long-time employee who made a simple request for MIT to make a statement similar to the statement JSTOR made. They heard from MIT professors and from scholars outside the community, yet they clung to a stance of neutrality that, as Abelson’s report notes, systematically favored the prosecution over the defense.
    The New York Times reports that MIT was “cleared” of wrongdoing in Aaron Swartz’s prosecution and death. I think the report presents MIT with two equally serious charges: a failure to act ethically, and a failure to show compassion. According to Abelson’s report, MIT’s president, chancellor and Office of the General Counsel did the minimum – and sometimes less than the minimum, when they failed to respond to defense subpoenas – in allowing Aaron Swartz and his team to mount a defense. In the process, they ignored the pleas of a long-time colleague who was desperately working to defend his son.
    MIT has a different president than it did for most of the Swartz case, and the ball is now in President Reif’s court to change a culture that was unwilling to take moral leadership in the case of Aaron’s prosecution. For those of us who are outraged by the inaction of MIT’s leadership in this case, we face Albert Hirschman’s famous choice: exit or voice. My friend Quinn Norton, Aaron’s partner when he was arrested, recently tweeted: “I will never work with MIT, I will never attend events at MIT, I will never support MIT’s work, and I hope dearly that my MIT friends leave.”
    I would hope that there’s another option: making clear that members of MIT’s community believe that MIT has responsibilities beyond “neutral” compliance, and working to change the culture that so badly failed Aaron. Evidently, it’s up to the MIT community – and the broader internet community – to make sure this report isn’t the final word on MIT’s role in Aaron’s prosecution and to ensure that Abelson’s questions in the report do not remain unanswered. I hope that President Reif’s promise to engage with Abelson’s questions leads to real change in an institution that has much to answer for, and I plan to push as hard as I can from the inside to ensure that MIT’s response to Aaron’s death does not end with this report.

  • See you in a couple of weeks

    by Ethan

    I’m on vacation for the next two weeks, taking a break from a long stretch of writing and talking about Rewire and related issues. I should be back online around August 10. In the unlikely event you find yourself missing me, here’s the video of a talk and discussion I had about Rewire at Harvard’s Berkman Center last month.

    And if you’re in need of more reading material, check out an important new paper from Yochai Benkler, Hal Roberts and other friends at the Berkman Center. The paper uses Media Cloud to analyse the conversation online around SOPA/PIPA and understand agenda-setting, framing and relationships that influenced the debate. My students and I are finishing up a parallel paper at Center for Civic Media using some of the same techniques, and some new techniques, to examine the online debates that helped lead to George Zimmerman’s arrest, which we hope to have out in early fall.
    Hope you’re having a great summer.

  • REPORT: Youth of Color Experience Higher Levels of Gun Violence; Report Greater Support for Increased Gun Restrictions

    by Dallas

    According to the Black Youth Project’s latest memo, “Gun Violence and Public Opinion on Gun Control among America’s Young People,” youth of color experience higher levels of gun violence and report greater support for increased gun restrictions compared with their white peers.

    Because young people are the victims of gun violence at especially high rates, our analysis examined public opinion on gun control among youth between the ages of 18-29.

    In general, young people support a variety of measures designed to reduce gun violence, including restricting access to guns and ammunition, improving mental health care, and implementing national criminal background checks. But in contrast to their white peers, Black and Latino youth expressed greater support for increased gun restrictions, and prioritize reducing access to guns over protecting the rights of gun owners.

    Nearly half of white youth reported that either they or someone they know carried a gun in the last month, compared with 24.4 percent of Black youth and 22.2 percent of Latino youth. However, Black youth were much more likely than either Latino or white youth to report that either they or someone they know experienced gun violence in the last year or that gun violence is a serious problem in their neighborhood.

    “Gun Violence and Public Opinion on Gun Control among America’s Young People” is the 11th in a series of memos entitled: “Black and Latino Youth: The Future of American Politics” released by the Black Youth Project

    Click Here for the Complete Memo

  • “Sorry for Disturbing: We’re Trying to Change Brazil”: Brazilian Youth, Civic Media, and The Protests

    by Henry Jenkins

    This spring, my Civic Paths Research Group was lucky enough to be able to host a visit by Carla Mendonça, a journalist and a Doctoral candidate at the Research Center and Graduate Program on the Americas at the Institute of Social Sciences of University of Brasília in Brazil. Her primary research interest is in drawing comparisons between the roles new media is playing in the political lives of American and Brazilian youth. She sat in on our weekly research meetings and also participated actively in a PhD seminar I was running focused on Civic Media and Participatory Politics. She arrived back home just in time to see some significant political rallies across her country and she has been sharing via our group’s discussion forum some of the kinds of new media practices that have been a part of this protest and reform movement. This story has been under-reported in the U.S. media, compared to really important stuff like what’s been said inside the Big Brother House. So, I wanted to share with you today her account of what’s been happening on the ground there and her selection of some key examples of the memes and videos being produced and circulated by this mostly youth led movement.
    “Sorry for disturbing: we’re trying to change Brazil”:
    Brazilian Youth, Civic Media and the Protests –
    by Carla Mendonça 
    Brazil is known for its cultural diversity. We have exciting music and spectacular dances. Our media is recognized for its tela novellas and advertisements. Nowadays, we are the second largest community – behind the United States — on Facebook. We are known for our creativity, our warmth, and our diversity.
    Throughout the last decades, Brazilians have also made progress in achieving formal democracy, in creating more jobs and providing better wages, and in expanding access to the education system.  For many, the World Cup and the Olympic Games represented the promise of increased global visibility and of bringing more foreign investments into our country.
    This winter — it’s winter in Brazil now –  we have also gained visibility as another country which has used network communications to inspire a grassroots movement for social change. What’s happened in cities across Brazil show strong parallels to the Spanish Indignados, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the various Arab Spring uprisings: protests across our country have some of the same spirit as the world saw displayed in Egypt’s Tahrir Square.

    As these protests have moved forward since June, we are seeing Brazilian youth demonstrate a great understanding of how to use the internet and transmedia for civic engagement purposes. As Henry Jenkins contends, civic media is “any use of any technology for the purposes of increasing civic engagement and public participation, enabling the exchange of meaningful information, fostering social connectivity, constructing critical perspectives, insuring transparency and accountability, or strengthening citizen agency”.
    The polling institute Datafolha Research found that most of the protesters in the streets are 26-35 years old and don’t have any political party preference. More than 80% of them follow the movement through Facebook.
    (Leave the couch and come to protest)

    The movement started in March in the southern town Porto Alegre: the initial action was directed against a proposed increase in the public transportations’ fares. In June, 14th, in Sao Paulo, after weeks of tentative protests for the same reason, students tried again to protest in a main street of the biggest Brazilian city, where the buses’ fares had increased R$ 0,20 – about US$ 0,10. Police violently repressed the protesters to make the traffic free.
    Brazilian protests are brutally dispersed by the police

    The following day, videos, photos and testimonies about the confrontation between undergraduate students and soldiers were spreading across the internet and social networks. The content was shocking, and even people that were not participating in the events started to support the movement. Police tried to control the protests, especially, in Sao Paulo, Rio and Brasilia, while the biggest Brazilian media corporation – Rede Globo – called the students “delinquents”.  To work around those obstacles, activists deployed transmedia practices to report what was happening in the streets and mobilize the public.
    In the eye of the storm

    That weekend, protests expanded from the South to the North. Millions of people went to the streets in big cities. Police retreated and media started to call the students “protesters” instead of “delinquents”.
    A meme
    (Sorry for disturb the traffic, we’re trying to change Brazil)

    The increase of the public transportation’s fares was the trigger, but other issues are being brought to the streets. Protesters are asking for change. They want better public services on education, health and public transportation, the jailing of corrupt politicians, and they don’t accept the huge amounts of public money that are being spent on the World Cup. People are saying they would prefer that money be focused on education and health systems rather than on stadiums.
    No, I’m not going to the World Cup

    A meme
    (Kick Fifa – Mr. Politicians, the party is over – The State is made by the people, with the people and for the people)

    As with other decentralized protest movements that have sprung up around the world, the absence of a strong leadership within the movement has made it difficult for them to negotiate with government authorities. On internet, some attempted to consolidate their agenda and make clear proposals.
    19 de Junho de 2013 04 38

    We will be simple and direct!
    The radio and television media say that we don’t have a specific cause.
    It can weaken the movement.
    The decrease of the public transportations’ fares is not enough for us,
    but actually we need to know how to start a new Brazil.
    So we are raising five straight causes without religious or ideological inferences,
    without political parties’ flags or subjectivities.
    We are going to raise moral causes that are unanimous accepted.
    And we are going to raise few of them for a while in order to keep them strong.
    We will call them The Five Causes!
    The five causes are:
    1)         Not to PEC 37 (an amendment to the Brazilian Constitution).
    2)          The quick renunciation by senator Renan Calheiros of the presidency of the National Congress.
    3)          Quick investigation by Federal Police and District Attorneys and punishment of illegalities in World Cup’s constructions.
    4)           A law that defines corruption as a heinous crime.
    5)          The end of the privileged forum for politicians because it is an offense to our Constitution.
    Repeat, shout, retweet, and share.
    Download this video and post on your social networks accounts before it is deleted from internet.
    You will see that your son don’t give up the fight (sentence from the Brazilian anthem).
    Despite some criticism of the movement by journalists and political analysts, all local governments decided don’t raise the public transportations’ fares anymore. Even so, protesters kept engaged, demanding better health and education systems, less corruption, and bringing more and more issues to the streets.
    A Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff`s meme
    (The Queen of the Cups)

    A Congress meme (it is the Brazilian Congress shape)
    (Don’t re-elect any congressman – The democratic way to give dignity to the Brazilian Congress)

    After three weeks under pressure, the main political institutions started to announce some propositions. President Dilma Rousseff, for example, announced the intention to start a process to reform the country’s political institutions. Some of the quick answers from the political institutions included:
    -       Mayors of 104 cities in 17 states (Brazil has 27 states) canceled increases in public transportation fares.
    -       Federal Government: 1) called a meeting with mayors and governors to discuss an agreement for education, health and urban mobility; 2) called a meeting with some movements’ leaders; 3) announced the intention to start a political institutions’ reform process in the country.
    -       The Congress: 1) voted and didn’t approve an amendment to the Brazilian Constitution (PEC 37) that has been proposing restrictions to Ministério Público, an institution similar to the District Attorneys; 2) approved a law that defines corruption as a heinous crime; 3) approved that 100% of the money from oil royalties will be invested on education and health; 4) canceled the July recess.
    -       Supreme Court ordered the arrest of a congressman judged guilty of corruption in 2010.
    Signs are that the government is responding to this popular movement, and more is yet to come.
    Brazilian Spring – Enough! Brazil is of the Brazilian people!

    Things did not fall from the sky

    The movement was organized by young people, creatively, via internet, working in networks, adding a Brazilian face to this global phenomenon. Young Brazilians used the communication via internet and transmedia exchanging meaningful information, they fostered social connectivity, they constructed real critical perspectives, and they strengthened citizen agency. Thus, they strengthened their social bonds and created a strong sense of civic engagement and collective empowerment.
    Civic action is essential for democracy. Those young people have shown that they can know how to deploy civic media to push for a more democratic society and for policies that better represent their values.
    Carla Mendonça is a journalist and a Doctoral candidate at the Research Center and Graduate Program on the Americas at the Institute of Social Sciences of University of Brasília, in Brazil. Last semester, Carla worked on her Doctoral dissertation research at Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at University of Southern California thanks to a grant from Capes Foundation, an agency under the Ministry of Education of Brazil. She is comparing how young Brazilians and Americans use technology for civic engagement and participatory politics.
    While we are on the subject of participatory politics, I also wanted to share with you today a powerful video on the George Zimmerman verdict, produced by the Black Youth Project. Cathy Cohen, who is a fellow member of the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Research Network, was hosting a convening of more than 100 black youth activists this weekend and they collectively decided to issue a statement about the Trayvon Martin Case and the issue of violence directed against black youth. The video is simple, direct, and poignant: it carries the moral weight of a new generation of political leaders as they grapple with some of the most difficult issues of our time. You will want to watch this.

  • Surveillance, sousveillance and PRISM – an op-ed for Die Zeit

    by Ethan

    Friends at Die Zeit, who heard me speak at a panel about “Cameras Everywhere” at Personal Democracy Forum, asked me to write an op-ed for their newspaper. That piece ran today, translated into German. Here’s the English version I wrote just before the “Restore the 4th” protests in Washington DC and elsewhere.

    Revelations about the extent of the US government’s surveillance of digital media has triggered a range of reactions around the world. In the world outside the US, citizens and their governments are rightly furious that the National Security Agency is systematically monitoring communications on some of the world’s most widely used communications platforms. That the US apparently spies on its closest allies in EU offices merely adds insult to injury.
    The reaction within the US to these revelations has been disappointingly subdued. Civil libertarians and advocates for free speech online are struggling to productively channel their anger and are planning a major protest in Washington DC on July 4. But more widespread responses include a nodding acceptance of any invasion of privacy in exchange for prevention of terrorist violence, and a cynical, world-weary insistence that no one should be surprised that all digital networks are monitored both by corporations and by governments.
    As a frustrated advocate for unfettered online speech, I find myself looking for ways to help my fellow Americans understand the significance of pervasive online surveillance. Unlike in Germany, where memories of the Stasi trigger an instinctive resistance to being watched, surveillance in the US has often focused on marginal political groups, which allows many Americans to assume that surveillance doesn’t affect them personally. This search for ways to make surveillance more apparent has led me to the work of Dr. Steve Mann and his work on “sousveillance”.
    Mann is a professor at the University of Toronto, and an innovator in the world of wearable computers. In 1981, as a student at MIT, he created the first generation of EyeTap, a head mounted camera that recorded what the wearer saw and presented a computer-enhanced view of the scene. More than thirty years before Google Glass, Mann began living life while wearing a camera, recording all that he encountered, an experience that’s given him some deep insights into watching and being watched.
    Mann coined the term “sousveillance” – watching from below – as an alternative to “surveillance” – watching from above. In surveillance, powerful institutions control the behavior of individuals by watching them or threatening to watch them, as in Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. In sousveillance, individuals invert the paradigm by turning their cameras on institutions, promising to document and share misbehavior and malfeasance with a potentially global audience through digital networks.
    One effect of sousveillance is to provoke conversations about what it means to be watched. Even when surveillance is visible, as in the CCTV cameras that loom over many of our city streets, most of us tend to ignore the unseen watchers who monitor us. But when someone points a camera at us – particularly a camera mounted on their eyeglasses – we react, often with anger or dismay. Mann, who wears his EyeTap permanently attached to his head, was assaulted in a McDonalds in Paris by employees who were upset that he was taking pictures and who sought to force him to remove the camera.
    We may need similar provocations to trigger our reactions to online surveillance. “Creepy”, a program by Ioannis Kakavas, can track an individual’s movements on a map through her postings on social media services. While Creepy was intended as an activist project, commercial programs use similar techniques. A controversial iPhone application, Girls Around Me, mines data on Foursquare to alert men looking for dates to locations in their cities where many women have checked in. Angry reactions to these programs, as well as reports of bars preemptively banning patrons from wearing Google Glass suggest that Mann’s idea of making surveillance both personal and visible may be a first step in provoking a discussion about what types of watching are appropriate and inappropriate.
    There’s a second aspect of sousveillance that’s worth exploring: the idea that individuals may be able to keep the powerful in check by documenting misbehavior. While this idea can seem hopelessly naïve when confronted with systems as massive and pervasive as PRISM, it’s worth exploring cases where watching from below has helped fight abuses of power. Morgan Tsvangirai’s appointment as prime minister of Zimbabwe in 2009 was a direct result of his party’s technique of photographing voting tallies at each polling station, enabling a parallel tabulation of votes. Confronted with evidence that Tsvangirai had beaten Mugabe in the first round, Mugabe’s government was unable to rig the election and was forced into a power-sharing agreement with Tsvangirai, the opposition leader.
    More recently, activists in the Occupy Movement have used livestreaming of video as a technique to document their protests and police violence against protesters. Dozens of cameras captured footage of Lt. John Pike attacking seated protesters with pepper spray at a peaceful Occupy protest at UC Davis. The widely documented incident led to the UC Davis police chief and two officers being suspended and to Lt. Pike losing his job, and created one of the most powerful images of the power asymmetries the Occupy movement sought to confront.
    Pervasive cameras can document the inner workings of institutions as well as abuses of power. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney suffered a major campaign setback when video showed him dismissing 47% of the American electorate as unlikely to vote for him because they “believe they are victims” and are dependent on government services. The video, secretly shot by Scott Prouty at a fundraising event, was posted online and widely distributed by Democratic activists, who saw the video as evidence that Romney was out of touch with the electorate.
    Most recently, sousveillance has shown its power in documenting protest movements in Turkey and Brazil that were initially ignored by mainstream media. In Turkey, CNN famously showed a documentary about penguins rather than footage from Gezi Park, leading protesters to make signs that show penguins wearing gas masks, protesting both the government’s use of tear gas and the media’s silence about the protests. In the absence of broadcast media attention, the protesters used their own documentation to find audiences online, spreading protests from those in the park to those who witnessed online and began protests in their corners of the country.
    The Obama administration seems unlikely to shift policy on online surveillance without widespread and sustained popular outcry. As activists seek to trigger that outcry, we may need to make surveillance far more visible so it can become far more controversial.

  • Facebook, Reddit and what “social media” means

    by Ethan

    I have a brief piece on The Atlantic’s website today that contrasts Facebook and Reddit in terms of how they build online communities and direct their users to new content. I argue that Reddit, with the assumption of anonymity and an organization around topics and sections has some resemblance to the Internet of the 1980 and 90s, while Facebook has changed the shape of internet communities, demanding real-name registration and building online social networks that mirror our offline networks. By paying attention to social media communities that work along the Reddit model as well as those that follow the Facebook model, I hope that people can increase their cognitive diversity and expose themselves to a wider range of ideas, opinions and perspectives.
    My friend Anthea Watson Strong pointed out on Twitter that Reddit is an odd example to use when talking about cognitive diversity. It has a reputation for being white, male, young and American… and that reputation is not unjustified. (This study of US Reddit users by Pew’s Internet and American Life Project suggests that the audience is broader and larger than we might think – in particular, I was surprised to see the large reach with Latino youth.) In Rewire, I spend a decent amount of time beating myself up for my Reddit habit, pointing to my tendency to return to the site as an example of seeking out familiar, comfortable voices rather than seeking diversity.
    So why the praise for Reddit? I’m not trying to argue that Reddit is superior to Facebook, or that Reddit is the solution to problems of increasing cognitive diversity. But Reddit is a good example of a site that’s reached a large audience by using a different model of community than Facebook’s model of real-name, real-world network community. Other examples include Twitter (which features asymmetric following, no assumption of real name, and support for topic-based organization through lists), and Wikipedia (which features communities based around common practice and collaboration and a citizenship model for participation).
    My argument isn’t even against Facebook’s ordering of community, though I think it reinforces homophily effects that plague offline communities. It’s for people building new internet tools to consider the idea that there are multiple ways of building an online community, and that different communities have different strengths and weaknesses. The people you meet by exploring a common topic is different than the group of people you meet by migrating your offline social network online. I worry that when we talk about “social media”, we talk too much about networks that work like Facebook and not enough about networks that work like Reddit or like Wikipedia. In particular, I see a lot of tools that are using social networks to customize search and use only a narrow definition of social network to look for recommendations and inspirations.
    Commenting on my piece, David Aron Levine notes, “This article by @EthanZ on Reddit highlights as much a latent demand for something more as it does Reddit”. Yep – that’s right. I like Reddit and use it (as a lurker, as my dismal karma numbers will show), but what I’d really like to see is a wave of new communities organized around different ideas of what it means to be social. Some might connect people around topics of common interest, as Reddit does. Others might bring people together around a common project, as Wikipedia does. I’d particularly like to see – or perhaps build – a community that helps people discover each other via a common interest but emphasizes connecting people who would be highly unlikely to meet in the physical world, or who come from very different backgrounds.
    Would love your thoughts on who’s doing good work defining online community in terms other than “people I know in the physical world” and how these communities can help people discover information online.

  • Me and my metadata – thoughts on online surveillance

    by Ethan

    The NSA documents Edward Snowden leaked have sparked a debate within the US about surveillance. While Americans understood that the US government was likely intercepting telephone and social media data from terrorism suspects, it’s been an uncomfortable discovery that the US collected massive sets of email and telephone data from Americans and non-Americans who aren’t suspected of any crimes. These revelations add context to other discoveries of surveillance in post 9-11 America, including the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, which scans the outside of all paper mail sent in the US and stores it for later analysis. (The Smoking Gun reported on the program early last month – I hadn’t heard of it until the Times report today.)
    The Obama administration and supporters have responded to criticism of these programs by assuring Americans that the information collected is “metadata”, information on who is talking to whom, not the substance of conversations. As Senator Dianne Feinstein put it, “This is just metadata. There is no content involved.” By analyzing the metadata, officials claim, they can identify potential suspects then seek judicial permission to access the content directly. Nothing to worry about. You’re not being spied on by your government – they’re just monitoring the metadata.
    Of course, that’s a naïve and oversimplified view of metadata, which turns out to be a surprisingly rich source of information on who people are, who they know and what they do. Congress has historically recognized that metadata is important and deserves protection – while the Supreme Court ruled in Smith vs. Maryland that phone numbers dialed should not be expected to be private information, as they are exposed to the phone company, Congress put restrictions on the use of “pen registers”, devices that can track what calls are made and received by a phone, requiring law enforcement to go to court to institute such tracking. The same logic in Smith vs. Maryland applies to the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program – since information on envelopes is visible to the public, or at least to mail carriers, it’s monitorable and storable, even without “mail covers“, US Postal Service administrative orders used to trace mail coming to criminal suspects. And, perhaps, the policymakers who approved NSA’s surveillance projects would argue that the logic applies to email headers as well.
    Put aside for the moment the question of whether monitoring metadata is reading public information or is more analogous to a pen register. There’s a scale issue that comes into play here. One major constraint on pen registers and mail covers historically has been the sheer amount of data they generate. Potential overreach by law enforcement is held in check by two factors – the need to get court or administrative approval to trace metadata, and the ability to process said metadata. As a result, USPS insiders report that it processes about 15,000 – 20,000 mail covers a year related to crime, and as security researcher Chris Soghoian discovered, internet and telecommunications companies charge law enforcement agencies for pen registers, putting some practical limits on their use.
    But the NSA surveillance of email and phone networks, and the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program have no such limits. While it’s likely quite expensive to scan all US mail, once you’ve committed to doing so, it’s comparatively cheap to store that information and analyze it at later dates, as investigators evidently did to arrest Shannon Richardson for sending ricin to President Obama and New York City mayor Bloomberg. And, since the costs of NSA surveillance are evidently borne primarily by internet and telephony companies, it’s downright cheap to keep metadata on email and phone calls. All the postal mail, email and phone calls.
    It’s also much, much cheaper to analyze this data than in years past. The current frenzy for “big data” and “data science” has called attention to techniques that allow analysts to pull subtle patterns out of data – a New York Times story that suggests that retailer Target was able to identify pregnant customers based on their purchasing behavior (unscented lotion!) and target ad flyers to them gives a sense for the commercial applications of these techniques.
    Sociologist Kieran Healy shows another set of applications of these techniques, using a much smaller, historical data set. He looks at a small number of 18th century colonists and the societies in Boston they were members of to identify Paul Revere as a key bridge tie between different organizations. In Healy’s brilliant piece, he writes in the voice of a junior analyst reporting his findings to superiors in the British government, and suggests that his superiors consider investigating Revere as a traitor. He closes with this winning line: “…if a mere scribe such as I — one who knows nearly nothing — can use the very simplest of these methods to pick the name of a traitor like Paul Revere from those of two hundred and fifty four other men, using nothing but a list of memberships and a portable calculating engine, then just think what weapons we might wield in the defense of liberty one or two centuries from now.”
    If you are a member of a secret organization planning overthrow of the government, you’ve probably already thought hard about what your metadata might reveal. But if you’re an average citizen with “nothing to hide”, it may be less obvious why your metadata may not be something you are comfortable sharing. After all, Frank Rich recently proclaimed that “privacy jumped the shark in America long ago” and that we are all members of “the America that prefers to be out there, prizing networking, exhibitionism, and fame more than privacy, introspection, and solitude.” Lured by reality television and social networks, we all want to be watched and have therefore have given up our distaste for surveillance.
    I think it’s possible to be both a heavy user of social media, and concerned about the security of your metadata. It simply requires understanding that, for many of us, social media is a performance. When I share links on Twitter, I’m aware that I’m constructing an image to my followers as someone who’s interested in certain topics and disinterested in others. I don’t share every article that I read, both because I suspect not all are interesting to my followers and also because I don’t really want my professional community to know just how much mental energy I spend worrying about who the Green Bay Packers will field at running back in the coming season.
    This may not be how you use social media, but it probably should be. As danah boyd and others have pointed out, youth have had to figure out how to navigate a world in which their interpersonal and social interactions are archived, searchable and persist long enough to present a problem in adulthood – as a result, they’re continually engaged in “identity performance”, as well as in developing codes and other ways to speak on social networks to defy monitoring.
    By contrast, most of us aren’t maintaining a persistent, public performance when we’re using telephones or email. (For an example of what this might feel like, consider this story from This American Life, where lawyers who work with Guantanamo detainees talk about how having the US government monitor their personal phone calls changes their behavior.) Our metadata can reveal things we may not want to share with others, or may not know ourselves.
    As it happens, I have a pretty good sense for what my email metadata might tell an investigator. This fall, I co-taught a class with Cesar Hidalgo, Catherine Havasi and Sep Kamvar at the Media Lab titled “Big Data”. Two of the students who took the class, Daniel Smilkov and Deepak Jagdish, worked on a project called Immersion which uses Gmail metadata to map someone’s social network. I’m one of about 500 alpha testers of the software, developed by Cesar, Daniel and Deepak, and have been one of the poster boys for the project as it’s been on display at the Media Lab, as I’ve got the largest network of Gmail contacts of anyone who’s used the system. (This isn’t because I’m especially popular, I suspect. Most of my MIT colleagues use mit.edu addresses. As someone new to MIT, who maintains a number of different affiliations, I have been a heavy Gmail user.)
    Here’s what my metadata looks like:

    The largest node in the graph, the person I exchange the most email with, is my wife, Rachel. I find this reassuring, but Daniel and Deepak have told me that people’s romantic partners are rarely their largest node. Because I travel a lot, Rachel and I have a heavily email-dependent relationship, but many people’s romantic relationships are conducted mostly face to face and don’t show up clearly in metadata. But the prominence of Rachel in the graph is, for me, a reminder that one of the reasons we might be concerned about metadata is that it shows strong relationships, whether those relationships are widely known or are secret.
    The other large nodes on the graph are associated with specific clusters. Rebecca is my co-founder at Global Voices and Ivan and Georgia run the organization day-to-day – they dominate the green cluster, which includes key people in that organization. Hal is my chief collaborator at the Berkman Center, and Colin is my boss – they dominate the orange cluster, which includes fellow Berkman folks as well as a number of prominent internet law and policy folks who work closely with the Center. Lorrie is assistant director at Center for Civic Media and is the person I work with most closely at MIT – the red cluster represents the people I work with at the Media Lab.
    Anyone who knows me reasonably well could have guessed at the existence of these ties. But there’s other information in the graph that’s more complicated and potentially more sensitive. My primary Media Lab collaborators are my students and staff – Cesar is the only Media Lab node who’s not affiliated with Civic who shows up on my network, which suggests that I’m collaborating less with my Media Lab colleagues than I might hope to be. One might read into my relationships with the students I advise based on the email volume I exchange with them – I’d suggest that the patterns have something to do with our preferred channels of communication, but it certainly shows who’s demanding and receiving attention via email. In other words, absence from a social network map is at least as revealing as presence on it.
    Another sensitive piece of information comes from how Immersion draws and codes clusters. Immersion’s algorithm is sensitive to who you include on the same email. Global Voices emails include Ivan, Georgia, Rebecca and others – people who I email when I email those three get placed in the same cluster. People who exist as bridges between clusters are particularly interesting, as they are people who appear in multiple roles in your social network. Joi Ito appears on my graph twice (as “Joi” and “Joichi”) because he uses multiple email addresses, but in either role, he’s a bridge between my MIT existence, my Global Voices existence and my Berkman life, which reflects my long and multi-faceted relationship with him. But he’s colored red, as a Media Lab person, whereas other bridge figures like danah boyd show up as blue, as they have close relationships with Rachel as well. In other words, I have important, long-standing, multifaceted relationships with both danah and Joi, but danah is part of my family life as well, while Joi is not.
    My point here isn’t to elucidate all the peculiarities of my social network (indeed, analyzing these diagrams is a bit like analyzing your dreams – fascinating to you, but off-putting to everyone else). It’s to make the case that this metadata paints a very revealing portrait of oneself. And while there’s currently a waiting list to use Immersion, this is data that’s accessible to NSA analysts and to the marketing teams at Google. That makes me uncomfortable, and it makes me want to have a public conversation about what’s okay and what’s not okay to track.
    While popular outcry over revelations about the NSA has been somewhat muted so far, it’s possible that widespread protests planned for July 4th will spark more dialog about what represents unconstitutional surveillance. Here’s hoping that conversation will take a close look at metadata and ask hard questions about whether or not this is information we are willing to share with governments and corporations, or whether we need to regulate and limit this power to monitor as we’ve historically done in the United States. Restore the Fourth.

    For another example of what metadata may reveal, see Malte Spitz’s phone records. As I discuss in “Rewire”, Spitz sued his mobile phone provider to obtain his records, then worked with Zeit Online to build a visualization of his movements based purely on that set of data.

  • Tracing Brazil’s Guy Fawkes Masks

    by Ethan

    Early this morning, Reddit user “SlartiBartRelative” posted a photo, with the headline “The icon of anti-capitalism, mass-produced”. The post received thousands of upvotes and generated a long comment thread, though the most highly-rated comment argued “Those masks have nothing to do with anti-capitalism… like at all”. Other commentators note that Anonymous, which has famously adopted the Guy Fawkes mask, is anti-corruption or anti-tyranny, which may sometimes manifest itself as anti-corporatism, which can look a lot like anti-capitalism. (There’s also a helpful discourse on the historical Guy Fawkes. Yay, Reddit comment threads!)

    I saw the image as it started appearing on Twitter, usually with a comment about irony or despair that a protest symbol was mass-produced under less-than-salubrious conditions:

    There’s been a good bit written about the Guy Fawkes mask. Friend and colleague Molly Sauter has the definitive article, tracing the mask from Alan Moore’s comic book, back to Catholic revolutionaries, then forward through Epic Fail Guy, 4chan, Anon and to Occupy. But she doesn’t dwell at length on anti-capitalism, focusing more on masks, anonymity and collective identity. Leo Benedictus, writing in The Guardian, explores the irony that the mask, created for the movie version of “V for Vendetta”, provides licensing revenue to Warner Bros.
    Later this morning, Business Insider published an article that borrows heavily from an article by Fabricio Provenzano for Extra Online, a Brazilian newspaper published by the massive Organizações Globo media group. Provenzano’s article, published ten days ago, suggests that the manufacturers are selling directly to protesters, with individuals coming to the factory to pick up hundreds of masks at a time, orders that are significantly larger than those made by wholesalers or distributors. The article doesn’t address the issue of licensing, but suggests that the factory is used to producing mass runs of masks for Carnival, and has also received designs for masks that parody Brazilian politicians, likely also for use in protests as well as in Carnival processions.

    The impression I took from Provenzano’s article wasn’t that the factory, run by a mask company called Condal, was particularly badly run or exploitative – Provenzano was interested in the sudden surge of interest in the design. And I would be stunned if Condal were an official licensee of Warner Bros – I think it’s unlikely that money paid for thee masks is going into the pocket of a Hollywood studio as Condal seems to borrow heavily from the global entertainment industry in its mask design.
    The photo of workers making Guy Fawkes masks is something of a Rorschach test. If you’re primed to see the exploitative nature of global capitalism when you see people making a plastic mask, it’s there in the image. if you’re looking for the global spread of a protest movement, it’s there too, with a Brazilian factory making a local knock-off of a global icon to cash in on a national protest.
    Because the internet is a copying machine, it’s very bad at context. It’s easier to encounter the image of masks being manufactured devoid of accompanying details than it is to find the story behind the images. And given our tendency to ignore information in languages we don’t read, it’s easy to see how the masks come detached from their accompanying story. For me, the image is more powerful with context behind it. It’s possible to reflect on the irony of a Hollywood prop becoming an activist trope, the tensions between mass-production and anonymity and the individuality of one’s identity and grievance, the tensions between local and global, Warner Bros and Condal, intellectual property and piracy, all in the same image.

    If you’d like a Condal-made Guy Fawkes mask, it’s available here – scroll down and look for item 101. It’s near the troll-face mask, which could also come in handy.

  • Youth Radio Partners with Kennedy Center’s ArtsEdge Digital Learning Initiative

    by Youth Radio

    Youth Radio and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts have teamed up to bring digital media learning to the Oakland youth community through creative expression about current affairs. The partnership, which began this year with the launch of the Whats Going On…Now (WGON) campaign, offers Youth Radio participants opportunities to be a part of a national arts project, engage in dialogue about social justice, and share their inspiring artistic work with others across the country.
    WGON is a digital project designed to link the arts and social justice. The project celebrates the 40th anniversary of Marvin Gaye’s performance of the album at the Kennedy Center, a year after its release in 1972. At its heart, WGON encourages young people to express their views on current events and social struggles in creative ways to create projects that span multiple digital media.
    Through Youth Radio’s partnership with ArtsEdge, two Youth Radio participants travelled to Washington DC with Maeven McGovern, Youth Radio’s Community Arts Manager, to the Kennedy Center’s ArtsEdge Youth Summit, where they learned about transmedia storytelling, shared their creative pieces with other students from around the country, and performed at Busboys and Poets, a community gathering place for spoken word poetry. They also received tickets to the May 3rd concert performance of “What’s Going On” and more at the Kennedy Center.
    WGON is the first of many such projects in which Youth Radio and the Kennedy Center will be teaming up. Learn more about WGON and ArtsEdge here.