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23

Apr

Twitter, the Killers, and Us: Radical Connectivity & the Week in Boston

Cross-posted to Huffington Post

Like all of Boston, I woke up Saturday morning feeling relief, grief, shock, and pride. I’m most proud of the city’s incredible first responders and the medical community. They are true heroes.

And then there was the social media.

Televised images defined September 11th, 2001 for most of our nation; we followed the events of that tragedy almost entirely through TV news. This week was the inverse. Most of us followed everything entirely through social media. At first, it was exhilirating: Bostonians came out by the thousands to offer their homes to stranded marathoners using a Google spreadsheet. People came to the aid of victims and their families in a wide range of ways; a friend of my wife who went to high school with an injured victim started an online fundraising campaign for him & his family and raised $25,000 overnight. I found comfort in the responses of friends and families from around the world to my own posts to Facebook and Twitter, and eagerly clicked “like” when I saw friends and colleagues reporting their safety.

Twitter was essential, even if it was frequently wrong. Misinformation and speculation was rampant. Online communities like Redditt and 4Chan started crowdsourcing their own investigations, referred to as a ‘Racist Where’s Wally’ by one commentator. Two men were wrongly identified as suspects through the tangled web of online communities’ attempts to help the investigation (Redditt is even looking to make amends). Watching the dizzying stream of tweets during Friday night’s manhunt was like standing on the sidelines watching a chaotic mob moving in every direction at once. More than ever before, watching the events of this week in Boston I saw how removed our leaders and institutions are from the reality of social media.

Social media isn’t very old. It does not have norms, values, or institutions with integrity. At the same time, our institutions are out of sync with the reality of our times. Sure, the Boston Police Department was on Twitter — even using it to debunk misinformation that had gone viral. (Bizarrely, The President of Chechnya took to Instagram to make a statement.) The FBI and the Boston Police provided a tip line via phone and an online form — but in this day and age, that is a primitive way of harnessing the power of crowds.

In the era of radical connectivity, where 2/3rds of Americans have smart phones with the approximate power of a Cray Supercomputer, people are going to participate in the moment - to help investigate the crime, or to break the news. The desire of people to participate isn’t going away — it is only going to grow. We need our institutions and our leaders to develop ways of channeling people’s energy to help and extend the resources of law enforcement, journalism, and other institutions. People want to do something in the moment - and if we don’t give them things to do, they’re going to find ways to help

There are best practices for crowd-sourcing, well-established over the last decade, but noone followed this week. Here are a few of them: Define the problem, provide a lot of data, have a clear process to drive people through, and make sure you have a diverse network participating. (For a good dive into all of these, see David Weinberger’s book “Too Big To Know”) Asking people to email in their photos is a far cry from a management of volunteers through a complicated online process. Daniel Kreiss calls it “computational management” — using technology, specifically webapps, to organize and drive volunteer energy in a specific direction in a sophisticated way. The design of the technology provides integrity to the efforts.

There is a growing gap between our traditional institutions — like the news media and law enforcement — and the growing power of social media. That gap is wide, and growing — as this week’s events reminded us. My book launches on Tuesday, and the principle reason I wrote the book was to provoke more discussion about the relationship between our largest institutions and the tremendous power individuals carry on social media. We need — and deserve — better ways of participating in the important work of our institutions.

P.S. Here are some other good reads on social media’s role in this week’s tragic events:

18

Dec

The Tyranny of Email Subject Lines

This blog post was cross-posted on EchoDitto.com as “Hey”:

That’s right, Hey. As my grandmother used to say, “Hay is for horses”.

A recent businessweek article titled “The Science Behind Those Obama Campaign Emails”, detailed how casual and even profanity-laced subject lines delivered crucial fundraising performance. In the article, Toby Fallsgraff, the campaign’s e-mail director, is quoted as saying “The subject lines that worked best were things you might see in your in-box from other people… ‘Hey’ was probably the best one we had over the duration.”

Butchering of the English language began well before Obama campaign email subject lines; our online proclivities for brevity and casualness have seeped into and contaminated virtually everything, watering down our thinking and making clarity a rarity indeed. I have long believed that power is directly derived from purpose. If you have clarity of purpose, you will have power. This is a crucial element in successful online strategy work: you must know your purpose, and pursue it with a focused intensity. The problem is that the casual nature of our online culture can dilute purpose to a drab subject line.

We’re guilty of it at EchoDitto; our email last week had the inspiring subject line “December newsletter”. We all get so much email — better to say something interesting, something valuable, something with purpose and focus. The Obama campaign could resort to casual email subject lines, posing as intimate friends, because of the larger narrative context of the campaign. Every day, every news outlet in the world was focused on the presidential campaign. Many of your friends on social media were focused on the presidential campaign. You were not receiving these “Hey” subject line emails in a vacuum; there was a larger cultural context provided by the presidential campaign.

So what do you do when your cause, your work, your purpose is not embodied in the culture, the way the overpowering, all-encompassing presidential campaign consumed the country and I daresay the world for the last six months? The great challenge of email, from an online strategy point of view, is the tension between test-driven messages designed to boost performance (See Micah White’s clicktivism critique) and the need to give your work a narrative arc, one that inspires and compels your audience to action (See Dave Karpf’s response to Micah) White’s clicktivism critique.

In general, I preach (and worry myself) that we simply don’t spend enough time writing our emails, and thinking about their relationship to each other. Two crucial lessons I learned from Joe Trippi during the Dean campaign:

First, use your email list to break news. It will help the list grow (because people will sign up to get the next round of breaking news you release to the list first) but also communicate to the list that you value the people there, that they are your primary constituency and your first loyalty.

Second, use your email list to tell a story over time. Build a narrative arc to your emails that leads your online community to a moment of action with building intensity and engagement. (“Thus my life draws fuel ineluctably from triumph.” writes the poet Jim Harrison in “27” from “Letters to Yesenin”). Too often the emails I read aren’t building towards anything; they have no “story of us” and are instead one-off emails, written without any larger context: no cultural context, no context even within the prior and future emails we’re sending to the list.

Yes, we have to do it all: write beautiful, compelling emails, in a sequence that builds towards engagement and action like installments in a Dickens novel, with incredible subject lines that bring the campaign to life — while also A/B testing and seeking to maximize performance, keeping the core purpose in mind. The environment of a presidential campaign is highly unusual, and incentives tactics that won’t succeed for most organizations.

P.S. Yesterday is the anniversary of my grandmother’s death a few years back, and her exquisite sense of language and grammar inspired this post.

09

Dec

The Future of Politics, Internet style: A Conversation with Steven Johnson

I was invited to join FireDogLake for an online chat with Steven Johnson, a noted author most recently of Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age. This post is an edited version of some of the material I posted at FireDogLake.com.

When I first read Eric S. Raymond’s landmark essay on open-source programming, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”, I was delighted. Here was a perfect exposition of my experience with programming and the open-source community. You can write code in a Cathedral model – where Bill Gates is the architect and hires thousands of Micro-Serfs to write code that conforms to his blueprints – or you can write code in a Bazaar model, where your work was part of the community, “a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches… out of which a coherent and stable system could… emerge.” I knew which camp I was in: the Bazaar model as embodied in the open-source community was intellectually exciting and full of innovation, even if it didn’t pay as well.

As I became more involved in politics, the ethos of the open-source movement seemed confusingly in conflict with my experience of the Democratic Party. In their book, “Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics”, Jerome Armstrong (of MyDD) and Markos Moulitsas (of DailyKos fame) described the explosive encounter of the netroots with the Democratic Party establishment. But that isn’t the full story – the power of the netroots and the open-source movement stretches much deeper, well beyond mere party power politics. Something else is at work – something that Steven Johnson has surfaced and named in his excellent and insightful book, “Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age”.

One of my great frustrations about the digital age is how poor our language is to explain and understand what is happening in our midst. At the outset of Future Perfect, Johnson offers us a new word to describe an emerging political consciousness: peer progressive. It is an apt term, well-coined. Peer progressives believe in the progress of humanity – that we are on a path of continual improvement, and that the exciting technological innovations of the digital age offer new and compelling ways forward. While embracing a progressive worldview, peer progressives believe in the power of peer-to-peer networks, not institutions. They are “wary of centralized control, but they [are] not free-market libertarians…they [are] equally suspicious of big government and big corporations.” (page xxxvi)

In many ways, “Future Perfect" follows directly from Johnson’s earlier books on the impact of technology on our culture. Here, he describes what it means to be a peer progressive, including provide a historical context that suggests there is a long tradition of the decentralized anti-institutional progressive point of view. He goes on to look at the impact of a peer progressive point of view on our politics, our government, our media, and our corporations. A key framework of the book is the difference between the Legrand Star and the Baran network. The Legrand Star is the French railway plan where all roads lead to Paris, the “star” at the heart of the rail system. Johnson uses “Legrand Star” as vocabulary to describe how the priorities of a large institution can deliver a centralized solution with significant constraints. On the other end, Paul Baran is one of the founders of the digital era. His primary insight about how to harness the power of networks led to packet switching, a technology upon which the entire internet, from email to TCP/IP, is built. A Baran Web has no center, and consequently is enormously flexible in responding to a wide range of challenges. Johnson looks at different examples in the spheres of politics, government, policy, and corporate strategy: is this a Legrand Star solution or a Baran Web solution?

I’m ready to call myself a peer progressive. This grows out of my own experience, of having liberal values about many issues, but not seeing government as the solution to many of our challenges. Part of it is my experience of the open source movement, where complex problems (albeit technical ones) can be solved in an open collaborative way without formal institutions given good leadership and clear process. Johnson has begun the process of integrating a peer progressive point of view into a coherent political agenda that combines liberal social values with a more libertarian attitude about institutions. But remember that institutions includes corporations: an important characteristic of the peer progressive is that “peer progressives genuinely like free markets; they’re more ambivalent about CEOs and multinational corporations.” (p. 29)

I’ll be honest: I have significant reservations about what we might leave behind as we embrace the opportunities of the networked age. (I have written my own book on this subject, which won’t be out for a few months.) Regardless of my own reservations, I am convicted of the moral imperative to peer progressive approaches to our institutions. Johnson notes that “The peer-progressive framework is in its infancy, after all. We don’t yet know its limits.” (p. 208) It is up to us to find those limitations; I suspect we will all be surprised at the resiliency and opportunity that a peer-progressive future might provide. Read this book; our future depends on it.

03

Dec

A few thoughts on the election

A few thoughts on the 2012 election cross-posted on EchoDitto.com as “Small Money, Hard Data, and TV”:

It is going to take some time to understand what happened during the 2012 cycle, and how the Democrats achieved such a decisive victory. To be sure, demographic shifts, a Republican Party weakened by Tea Party insurgents, and an unprecedented field operation from the Obama campaign were all crucial elements. But understanding what lessons may be learned from the actual tactical work of the Obama campaign will take some time to sort out — especially how those lessons might apply to non-profits, advocacy groups, and companies. Two details in particular appear to loom large for us in the aftermath of the election.

First: small money online dominated. Time magazine noted that the Obama campaign raised significantly more money online than in 2008: “In total, according to new campaign calculations acquired exclusively by TIME, the Obama team raised about $690 million digitally in 2012, up from about $500 million in 2008, according to a senior campaign adviser.” $690 million from more than 4.4 million people — that’s an average gift of about $157. According to OpenSecrets.org, about 34% ($214m) of Obama’s fundraising was small dollar donors, whereas about 22% ($71m) of Romney’s fundraising was small dollar donors. Note that a small dollar donor is someone who gave less than $200. In other words, online donors were the silent engine of the Obama campaign. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by secretive Super PACs, the small dollar online donor, giving anywhere from $5 to $150, ended up making a difference.

Second: the demise of traditional television advertising. The Romney campaign and Super PACs supporting Romney spent almost every dime they had on standard political television ads — $492 million, and more than 91% of that spending on negative ads. And yet those ads had very little impact. Sure, they might have been bad ads — certainly the now infamous Jeep ad might have backfired — and sure, the Obama campaign and Super PACs supporting Obama also spent hundreds of millions of dollars on television. But (1) the Obama campaign’s TV ads were highly targeted — a scalpel to the Republican sledgehammer. And (2) that sledgehammer didn’t get the job done: according to the Washington Post, the Romney campaign and Super PACs spent $100 million more than the Obama campaign on television — while the Obama campaign and Super PACs opted to spend money on field and digital in addition to television. Overall, the Obama campaign spent more on advertising - in part because they spent $78.9 million with Bully Pulpit, a digital advertising firm.

The common thread of these two seismic shifts in the campaign landscape — and where rubber hits the road for advocacy groups, non-profits and companies — is the shift of decision-making power away from the old guard that based strategy on “experience” and “best practices” to instead making decisions based on cold, hard data. Team Obama collected an unprecedented amount of data on voters and based their campaign spending on what their models predicted would make the biggest impact on voters. The technological feat that has captured the attention of many was based a far more radical notion: data will beat “expertise.” And on the other side of the coin, Nate Silver outperformed all the talking heads who “knew” who would win and why.

We, of course, welcome our new pocket-protector wearing overlords.

06

Aug

Movement-Building and Email-Sending: a conversation about the MoveOn Effect

I was invited to join FireDogLake for an online chat with Dave Karpf, author of The MoveOn Effect. This post is an edited version of some of the material I posted at FireDogLake.com.

My first job out of college in the late 1990s was as the “webmaster” and online organizer for Common Cause. At the time, Common Cause was one of the largest grassroots advocacy groups in Washington, DC and had offices in almost every state capital. It was probably at the height of its power and financial resources and just about every single dollar of its sizable budget was raised via direct mail. My job, as a young nerd, was to build an online advocacy capability that would augment the power of the “armchair activist” Common Cause could tap through phone banking and direct mail. Little did I know at the time that the internet would provide a massive disruption to both the fundraising model and the advocacy model that built Common Cause.

Dave Karpf’s exceptional book, The MoveOn Effect, examines and explains the rise of the Netroots, putting organizations like MoveOn.org , the PCCC, DailyKos, and FireDogLake in historical and academic context. There is a rich study of political institutions and organizations that Karpf is able to tap into to better plumb the depths of what we have now, how it is different from what came before, and where we might be heading. Dave not only brings an academic and historical point of view, but he brings an activist point of view. For many years, he’s been a leader in the Sierra Club, serving on their National Board of Directors from 2004 to 2010.

The book is essentially divided into four parts: first, an examination of MoveOn.org and more broadly MoveOn’s model and its impact on political advocacy, organizing, and fundraising. He examines MoveOn.org in the context of an earlier generation of advocacy organizations, like the Common Cause I experienced just out of college, and the Sierra Club that Karpf was active in as a college student. How did advocacy and political activism work before MoveOn.org? How did MoveOn.org change things?

But MoveOn.org and the giant email list is just one part of the Netroots landscape, so Karpf next deftly moves on to look at the role of blogs – and more specifically community blogs – as a new form of political association, one that shares characteristics with the old institutional Democratic Party infrastructure. Along the way, Dave invented something called the Blogosphere Authority Index, an academically rigorous and structurally coherent way of measuring the true community strength of blogs – not just their traffic, but the activity of a blog’s readers, comments, and contributors.

The third major examination of the book is a look at the relationship between online and offline, taking a deep dive into the Meetups of the Howard Dean presidential primary campaign of 2004, and the political meetings that continue to persist long after the campaign ended.

Finally, Dave takes a deep breath and plows into an interesting and compelling argument about why the Republicans don’t have a MoveOn.org or an ActBlue.com, and why their blog communities don’t carry the same impact of weight as the blog communities of the Left. He argues that the weakness of the Republican Netroots boils down to the fact that they were in charge in the 2000s, holding the White House and (for the most part) one side of the Capital. As the political establishment, they didn’t need technology for leverage and political power – so they didn’t develop it.

I have done his arguments a disservice in trying to quickly sketch them out so as to encourage some discussion; you should buy the book and read it to drink deeply from his compelling arguments, interesting observations, and provocative questions. I have a heavily marked up paper copy (I know, so old school! But the old habits of blue bic pen notes in the margin die hard; see Billy Collins’ poem Marginaliafor a chuckle) that I keep returning to, keeping notes with the ambition of sending Dr. Karpf a detailed missive peppering him with questions, observations, and the occasional complaint.

But coming out of reading his book, I have three main questions, all of which I raised in our online chat and which Dave addressed:

1. One of my concerns about the MoveOn Effect is the extent to which online activism is tethered to what Dave calls “issue salience”. A less charitable characterization of “issue salience” might be “issue opportunism”. MoveOn is able to be nimble, and quick, because it doesn’t have a core issue or group of issues to which it must remain faithful. It’s hard – perhaps impossible – to anticipate the issue topic of the next MoveOn.org email. I wonder what the implications for issue salience might be for advocacy and potential ideological drift, as well as issue selection. Dave has aptly explained why traditional political organizations are “unlikely to [have] a smooth transition” to Netroots style activism. What gets lost in this transition from the old organizations to the “postbureaucratic” generation of political organizations? Dave’s response:

I see good news and bad news here. The good news is that most of the leading netroots organizations have taken proactive steps to make sure they don’t spend all their time “headline chasing.” FDL is a good example: in the past 24 hours, FDL has run stories on the aurora shooting and on Mitt Romney’s Bain problems. But it has also run a couple pieces on WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning. That’s because FDL has made a proactive commitment to working on the Bradley Manning issue. I’ve seen similar commitments from PCCC (campaign finance reform) and MoveOn (other 98%). So it isn’t all-headline-chasing, all-the-time. That said, I share your concerns about what gets lost in the disruptive transition from old advocacy groups to new ones. In particular, I think a lot of large-scale, long-term social movement efforts require an investment in infrastructure – trainings programs, field organizers, etc. The direct mail fundraising associated with armchair activism was really good for that kind of infrastructure. It was a reliable base of unrestricted funding that organizations could apply wherever it was needed most. The targeted online fundraising that MoveOn pioneered is better suited for other things. It’s great for raising a bunch of cash quickly to put a commercial on the air. But money raised for a tv commercial is restricted to the purpose of airing the commercial. You can’t simply divert it to field staffers. That’s what I call the loss of a “beneficial inefficiency.” Direct mail was an inefficient tool. Email is more efficient. But the inefficiency supported a public good, and now we don’t know we’re going to support that public good in the future.

2. Micah White, editor of Adbusters magazine, is one of the founders of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. He wrote a compelling “Total Critique of Clicktvisim”where he decries the A/B testing, performance-oriented culture of activism that is part of the MoveOn Effect: “The trouble is that this model of activism uncritically embraces the ideology of marketing. It accepts that the tactics of advertising and market research used to sell toilet paper can also build social movements. This manifests itself in an inordinate faith in the power of metrics to quantify success. Thus, everything digital activists do is meticulously monitored and analysed. The obsession with tracking clicks turns digital activism into clicktivism.” In a sense, White seems to be critiquing the creativity and “soul” of performance-driven professionalized digital activism. While I don’t believe that it is necessarily an either/or question, I do think that successful activism/movement-building has powerful stories and core values that drive participation and ultimately drive change. There is a role for leadership in the digital, distributed age – drive and direction matter. Take 2008 – the Obama presidential campaign sent emails about the state of the country, about real issues like race relations, and about the tactical moves required to defeat McCain. This cycle, in the midst of endorsing gay marriage and changing immigration laws, the campaign is sending emails encouraging people to donate $5 to win dinner with Sarah Jessica Parker and related celebrities. Which is more powerful? I’m going to guess that the “win dinner with someone famous” performed much better in A/B tests, but is that really the kind of presidential politics we want?

I’m glad you mentioned Micah White’s “clicktivism” critique, Nicco. I’ve written a couple of blog posts directly replying to him. I honestly don’t think very highly of his criticism. A/B testing provides a form of passive democratic feedback to netroots organizations. MoveOn can hear the will of their membership far more effectively than, say, the Sierra Club can. That’s an unqualified positive development. I would rather have advocacy groups that can hear from their supporters than ones who basically can’t. Political organizing is equal parts art and science. I do agree that we need to avoid putting too much faith in the metrics. There are plenty of questions that simply aren’t testable, and we don’t want organizers to shy away from the untestable-but-important. That said, this has always been the case. All the critiques of clicktivism apply just as well to the previous era of armchair activism. This is an ontological distinction within the activism world — a difference between activism-as-political-art vs activism-as-political-process. The culture jammers at Adbusters have always been critical of the political-process activists. And I’ve always been a political-process activist. But in that sense, I really don’t see Micah White effectively addressing “clicktivism.” He’s mostly providing the latest version of a very old argument within activist circles, and doing so in a style meant to piss off the maximum number of people!

3. I loved Dave’s examination and description of the MoveOn Effect. I think he has done an excellent job of clearly articulating a major change in our politics. I’m also on board with his Blogging Authority Index and characterization of community blogs as political associations – more excellent work. The final chunk of his argument is the rise of off-line/on-line hybrid activism, which he describes as “neo-federated” organization building. Our ability to translate online activism to offline people power does not have the power and force that I would expect, or that the country needs – as evidenced by the Tea Party. Right now, there are more than 700 active Tea Party Meetups, with each Meetup leader paying $12 a month out of pocket – in most cases paying that monthly fee for over a year, and in many cases for over two years. (The Tea Party’s use of Meetup definitely reinforces Dave’s argument of outparty incentives for tactical innovation.) I would argue that we need to compare apples to apples (or at least apples to oranges, instead of apples to lug nuts): the point of comparison for the neo-federated model should be the local Democratic Party meetings of old, the patronage-heavy party – and we’re simply nowhere near that kind of power. In the MoveOn Effect, Karpf makes a powerful comparison of MoveOn.org to the earlier generation of organizations like Common Cause and the Sierra Club. In Political Blogs as Political Associations, he makes an equally powerful comparison of community blogs like DailyKos and FireDogLake to the earlier generation of legacy organizations. But I’m just not sold on the comparison in the neo-federated model. His lead example is compelling – Philly for Change carries more power than the local chapter of the Sierra Club – but I suspect there are many, many more local chapters of the Sierra Club than Democracy for America.

You’re right about this. It’s the reason why I spend part of that chapter discussing the Drudge Report and proto-blogs. I think Democracy for America is a proto-example of what a neo-federated org could look like, just as the Drudge Report was a proto-example of what blogs later looked like. The missing ingredient, I think, is the mobile web. That really didn’t exist in 2004. It is now reaching a point in the its diffusion curve where we can see political and social applications. Tea Party groups (current outparty) have led the way. The mobile web blurs the distinction between online and offline experiences. You no longer have to be tethered to a laptop to be online. I honestly think we’ve only scratched the surface of how civic organizations can use mobile tech to enhance community engagement. I think there’s real promise and real power in neo-federated organizing. And I think it’s still on the horizon. But you’re right, the current examples of the model are really pretty limited.

23

Sep

Five ideas that animate the Internet: Core concepts and readings

This was originally posted at Journalist’s Resource, a project of the Harvard Shorenstein Center where I teach. I’m desperately overdue to blog something so I’m resorting to cross-posting.

Understanding the core ideas that guide how the Internet’s space and culture are constructed is crucial to interpreting an increasing number of events, from Barack Obama’s election and Wikileaks to the Arab Spring and the ongoing upheaval of major industries.

Though such events can seem shocking in their novelty and speed, the reality is that the underlying logic embedded in the Internet long ago helped set the table. Programmers, designers and theorists — who substantially came from the open-source movement — made decisions that are now having consequences, from the local to the global.

Ultimately, it’s important to see why the construction of the Internet is not necessarily friendly to the establishment.

For the hyper-connected, these core ideas are well known; they are taken for granted and are, as it were, the air the digital community breathes. But for many others, it is a matter of catching up. Digital norms and architecture need to be, in a sense, discovered for the first time. To be without this basic knowledge is to be subject to continuing blindsides and perpetual spin.

Below are five recommended readings that can help expose the bedrock of the digital world. Each examines key ideas and connects to wider notions. I have included some brief, informal remarks to set each reading in context and have linked to Wikipedia pages to clarify basic terms.

1) Idea: OPEN SOURCE

Reading: “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” Eric Raymond.

Relevance: This essay focuses on how the computer programming community in a networked world should operate. Raymond argues against one way of writing source code: the “cathedral” way, with a single architect or small elite planning and an army of serfs building the structure. In contrast, he advocates a “bazaar” model, whereby many people participate in a messier mutual system of trade. This system is often chaotic, but it’s also beautiful in its engaging liveliness. Software starts with “scratching your own itch” — solving problems that make your work more efficient. Raymond believes it’s good to then put this tentative software on the Internet where it may be improved by others, often perfect strangers — “release early and often,” he implores. This shared approach to work and problem-solving is embodied in the phrase, “Given enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow.” And embedded in this idea is that there are effectively no resource constraints to scaling up ideas.

2) Idea: ALGORITHMS AND AUTHORITY

Reading: The Search, John Battelle.

Relevance: This book about the central ideas of Google gives crucial insights into the development of the company’s Internet search innovations. Google’s world-changing algorithm PageRank took on the problem of trying to figure out users’ intentions — what they are really looking for. Google needed a way of establishing authority that was very hard to game. The fundamental way that Google went about this was to adopt the academic, scholarly model of peer citation. One of the most important measures that determines any web page’s authority and importance, and hence its ranking, is the number of other in-bound links. The number of other web sites, the terms that they link to you on, the frequency with which they link — all of these are a proxy for authority. And authority itself is thereby defined in a whole new, distributed way. Of course, it’s more complex and there are many other variables. But this is Google’s core genius, and it set the template and standard for how to assess importance on the Internet — and ultimately how informational power is constructed.

3) Idea: WEB AS PLATFORM

Reading:What is Web 2.0?” Tim O’Reilly.

Relevance: In this essay, O’Reilly coins and articulates the idea of “Web 2.0,” a buzz term that is often now thrown around so loosely that it has lost its original meaning. The core concept is the “web as platform.” Traditionally in computer science, a platform is a piece of software that controls a bunch of resources so they easily can be shared. Microsoft Windows, for example, controls your keyboard, speakers, battery, keyboard, screen, and much more. This means that Excel and Firefox and whatever other programs a computer is running don’t need to each manage a computer’s basic functions. The idea of “web as platform” exports this technical computer science notion to the interactive Web world. This concept is made manifest in, for example, the way Wikipedia harnesses user-generated content; or, the way Netflix harnesses user ratings to recommend other movies to its audience. O’Reilly discusses how the Web can be used to take advantage of the sprawling, constantly growing digital world to accomplish larger goals, in business, social organizing and beyond.

4) Idea: DIGITAL GOVERNANCE

Reading: The Wikipedia Revolution, Andrew Lih.

Relevance: This book looks at how Wikipedia has worked out a way to harness and organize the power of a vast, decentralized community. An astonishing percentage of the world uses Wikipedia on a regular basis; it may be the only media with truly global reach. The most important thing is Wikipedia’s governance structure, which provides a new model for the world. The organization has a community with norms and values that is working toward establishing an authoritative, neutral point of view on the sum total of human knowledge. But there is no easy or clean way to achieve this. Disputes need to be resolved, but often cannot be; “flame wars” break out over facts and accounts of events and people; there are a wide range of viewpoints. Wikipedia operates with the idea of asynchronous collaboration online, whereby a variety of people with differing views contribute across a wide range of time. (The digital media theorist Clay Shirky also has a lot to of relevant insight on this sort of project, organized around his idea of “cognitive surplus.” His thesis is that small amount of free time spent by individuals on interactive projects — when spread out over a larger community — can result in the creation of things of enormous value.)

5) Idea: THE PARADOX OF PERSONALIZATION

Reading: The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser.

Relevance: This is a relatively new book that contains a useful warning for all journalists, researchers or other information workers who use Google or other search products. Part of basic digital literacy now is understanding that search results are being customized and personalized to individuals’ browsing and search histories. (This also relates to how social networking applications are organizing your experience.) As Pariser notes, the amount of data now being created every 48 hours is roughly equal to all of the data in human history prior to 2003. This presents an enormous challenge. Google is trying to manage this torrent of information by serving up results that the company thinks may be better suited to what you are looking for. This new dynamic of personalization introduces a number of problems — for research, establishing authenticity, building movements, shaping public opinion. It’s an aspect of the digital world that everyone who cares about information should be watching, and this book provides a powerful lens through which to see this important trend.

27

Aug

Starting a Service Business

A friend of mine came to me for some advice on starting a service business. I tried to figure out the most important things (from my perspective) that were required:

1 - Start by getting a tax id number and opening a bank account. Make sure your bank account is somewhere you can see the banker face to face on a regular basis and develop a relationship; you will need a relationship with a banker at some point in your business life.

2 - In your proposals included a section called “Payment Terms” and require 25% of the total project fee to be paid in advance before the project starts. When you are starting a business, you need cash. Cash is king.

3 - Spreadsheets are your friend. Don’t pick numbers out of thin air; use a spreadsheet to estimate how much time the project is going to take you, and what extra costs there might be (travel, outside consultants, etc). 

4 - Don’t forget taxes: The government takes a lot of your money, more than you generally think.

5 - Do things on time. Big clients will immediately lose faith in you if your first few deliverables are late.

Trouble with Tumblr

I won’t lie. I’m a little annoyed at Tumblr these days. I’ve lost at least one full post on Tumblr. It looks like if I create a draft post, and then publish, it still keeps a copy as a draft. But if I delete the copy still in the drafts, it then deletes the published version as well. This is annoying; I have a lot of drafts, and now there are a lot of published posts mixed in with them.  So my brilliant post on the future of the Creative Class has been lost forever.  Into the ether. A lesson in losing things, I suppose. Reminds me of Elizabeth Bishop:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant 
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied.  It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

One Art
by Elizabeth Bishop

"Mobile" Justice

I highly recommend this blog post on the possibilities of mobile justice by Kate Krontiris. Great piece.  Generally speaking, it makes sense to me. One of the things I assign in my class is the book “Groundswell” by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff. The key idea is that the groundswell is “a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions”.  What Kate is describing is the way people could use technology to build their own sort of judicial system in countries without a functioning one. The challenge is not the technology — it’s the process, the values. How do you design a (mobile) judicial process that does not require centralized administration, embeds key values around due process, justice, and equality, and is culturally appropriate? The technology is all there — and pretty cheap — to make it happen. 

18

Aug

Meeting Dave

It was a cold January in Burlington, Vermont. I was ready for dinner, and I wanted some spicy soup to warm my insides. I was also going a little stir crazy. I was working at the Dean For America headquarters, and Howard Dean was a little more than two days away from the Iowa Caucus. We had been preparing for the Iowa Caucuses for a long time; I had been on the campaign full-time for about 9 months. And it might have been days since I had actually left the building, I’m not entirely sure. But I was jumpy, and the internet team I led had long since delivered the dollars required to be competitive in the campaign. There was a lot to do, but in some ways the only thing there was to do was wait until Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire made some decisions.

At the time Dave Winer was a Fellow at the Berkman Center at Harvard. It’s only a few hours drive from Boston up to Burlington, and Jim Moore was making the drive all the time. I think Jim introduced me to Dave. Dave was busy bootstrapping blogging at Harvard but was interested in what was happening during the election, and Burlington was a lot closer than Iowa.

I had spoken to Dave on the phone a few years earlier in 1999 when he was running EditThisPage.com. I was working for Arianna Huffington on the Shadow Conventions, and was charged with building a website for the Shadow Conventions that would be unconventional. Arianna demanded that I talk to Dave. (In retrospect, it makes The Huffington Post seem inevitable, because she had religion on blogging as early as 1999…) Dave and I had a couple of phone conversations and although I was impressed with EditThisPage, I was a cocky young developer and dreamed of building my own web publishing tool from scratch. (I would live to regret that particular dream, but that’s another story, and it involves an early iteration of Roxen.)

When I showed up on the Dean campaign in April of 2003, I came with a background that included a hodge-podge of technical and political influences, and one of the influences was Dave. One of the first things I did was help Mat Gross and Marc Chadwick re-launch the campaign’s blog and played my small part moving political campaigns forward.

So I was pretty thrilled to have Dave there in our campaign office. I’d never met him in person before. And it was pretty exciting to have a chance to chat with Dave, and a good distraction from the pending nervous exhaustion over the outcome of the caucus (by that time, we were beginning to get some signals that winning was not inevitable). And so it was cold, and I was craving some hot soup, and Dave and I went out for Vietnamese — at the time I’m pretty sure it was the only Vietnamese restaurant in Burlington. I don’t remember what exactly we talked about, but it was a terrifically engaging conversation and I came back to work after dinner fired up, with a lot of energy to try some new things.

The next few days were a blur. Among other things, my brother flew up from New York the day of the Iowa Caucuses to tell me he was getting married. And there was the candidate and the campaign, which was rapidly unraveling around me. It was kind of an insane moment to meet Dave, but also perfect. I think it was GK Chesterton who said, “There are no coincidences, only spiritual puns.” Here we are, just days before the campaign’s collapse, and one of the pioneers who inspired my work on the campaign shows up.

I don’t find hindsight to be 20/20. I find it to be decidedly more hazy than that. Maybe it was clear, in retrospect, that we needed to fight the media’s use of the “Dean Scream” to take down Dean with the channel we’d developed so well — the grassroots internet. But I don’t remember any discussion of it at the time; it just seemed like “they” — the mainstream media — were winning. And they were making a bad call, rejecting Dean. The same kind of bad call they made when they believed the Bush White House about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

One of my colleagues on the campaign who was in Wisconsin at the end tells a story (which may be apocraphyl) about how when Dean lost Wisconsin and was finally out of the race, the traveling press corps who had been following him around for a year wore t-shirts that said, “No, WE have the power,” a repudiation of Dean’s exhortation to the grassroots that they have the power to change the country. It is an ugly and terrifying story and it sounds exactly like the kind of urban myth spurned campaign workers would circulate, but it also has the ring of truth to me. I never found the national media very honest about Howard Dean. I always felt they decided early on what he was — not even who he was — and that was it. (In fact, I just went looking for the magazine cover, either Time or Newsweek, that featured Howard and was titled “Why is this man so angry?” and I couldn’t find it. I wonder if I made that up or if they have buried it.)

A few weeks ago I debated Alex Jones on the future of news. I wasn’t that thrilled with my own performance in the debate; I wasn’t on my game. But I realized coming out of the debate that Alex had this “iron-core” faith in the professionalism of journalism - and I don’t. Maybe it’s because Alex is a different generation; journalists held power accountable back then. In my adult life, journalists have been a power that needs to be held accountable. (Although N+1 recently brought to my attention that the notion that back then journalists held power accountable may also be a myth: “Remember Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent, demonstrating with twenty years of painstakingly collected press clippings that the Gray Lady was misrepresenting the plight of East Timor, Burma, Nicaragua? Remember Rick Perlstein explaining that David Halberstam’s reporting in the early 1960s pulled us into Vietnam?”)