Monthly Archives: July 2008

Rebooting America

For those who haven’t seen it already, Rebooting America is out. Edited by Allison Fine, Micah Sifry, Andrew Rasiej and Josh Levy, this book contains a collection of essays from a bunch of super awesome folks, including Yochai Benkler, Susan Crawford, Esther Dyson, Newt Gingrich, Craig Newmark, Howard Rheingold, Doug Rushkoff, Clay Shirky, David Weinberger …. and moi. You can download the whole book here or buy it here. If you just want to read my essay, check it out:

Can Social Network Sites Enable Political Action?

This essay complements “Digital Handshakes in Networked Publics: Why Politicians Must Interact, Not Broadcast” from Ben Rigby’s Mobilizing Generations 2.0.

a penny for your brain fodder

My blog is boring these days. Most of my writing energy is being spent on my dissertation. And I promise, none of you want to hear details of how I fine-tune my methodology chapter. I can’t even keep you entertained with outrageous tales of sordid trysts because, well, there aren’t any. Hell, I barely leave the house. The most exciting moments in my life occur when my cat snarls at the neighbor cat who tries to steal her food. And, well, that minutia is better left for Twitter. I could blog the dreams I’ve been having that involve Marx and Engels yelling at each other, but those make me look psychotic. So I’d rather not. That pretty much leaves grocery lists, health rants, and detailed discussions of the variability in Los Angeles weather.

Part of the problem is that I’ve been pretty disengaged with everything but my dissertation. I don’t keep up with blogs or gossip and I have been dreadful at making it to events that would normally stimulate me to comment on events out in the world. Most likely, you’re more engaged with social media these days than I am. Or you’re here accidentally. And really bored. Presumably, if you keep coming back, you’re waiting for me to say something interesting. Or maybe you’re just sick and twisted.

So how about we make a deal… Why don’t you help me find fodder to ramble and I’ll try to be provocative in return? (Or at least more entertaining than I am now.)

If you’ve got something you want me to comment on, leave a comment. Write questions, share links, whatever. I can’t promise that I’ll get to everything nor can I promise that I’ll want to comment on everything, but at least that’ll give me a sense of what you might find interesting and it’ll give me something other than my dissertation to think about. Being a hermit makes it hard to determine what is interesting. Anyhow, let’s just give this a try… Perhaps it’ll be an abysmal failure but perhaps it’ll be an interesting experiment.

So what’s on YOUR mind these days?

medical update

First, thanks y’all for your advice and support. Today, I visited a different doctor and it was much much better. She was willing to parse out the different symptoms and offer hypotheses and ways to test these possibilities. She ordered full blood work and, with the advice of a spine/neuro brother team, a CAT scan. Plus, since we know the neck thing is an ongoing issue, she’s ordered PT to help me further stabilize my neck without creating new injuries. This is purrrfect since personal trainers, swimming, yoga, and pilates have all been abysmal failures.

There are still lots of question marks, but I’m much happier with how we’re proceeding. I feel like I’m being taken seriously and that she’s treating this like a puzzle to be solved systematically. And she’s not focusing on treating the symptoms but getting at what’s underneath them. w000t!

Anyhow, thanks for all of the love and support and hopefully I’ll know more soon.

Can the iPhone hit crucial network density for noticable cluster effects?

On Friday morning, I was shocked to find my always-empty neighborhood AT&T store host to a long line of iPhone cravers. What shocked me even more was that the diverse group didn’t look like typical Apple consumers. They sold out quickly and are still sold out. I remarked on this to the cab driver and he smiled and raised his Gen 1 iPhone, telling me that his cousin wanted him to borrow it for a few days to convince him to get one. His cousin thought it would completely change what it meant to be a cab driver in LA. Not only would it give real-time traffic info but it would let him know where his fellow cab friends were with ease. My driver was starting to agree with his cousin (who should definitely be earning commission for his iPhone sale).

I had never thought about the cab driver case. Cab drivers in my city are always so excited to see a familiar face on the road and they wave enthusiastically. Those who hang out at the airport have strong networks of fellow cab drivers who wait with them. While they’re always tethered to their company, the iPhone would let them connect to one another all day long. I could just see the joy in this driver’s face as he imagined when he’d be able to look at the screen and see all of his friends on the map buzzing around the city alongside dots telling him which surface streets to avoid.

I’ve been anxiously awaiting this launch in the hopes that it might show the power of cluster effects wrt mobile phones. Cluster effects describe the emergent practices that occur when the density of infrastructure adoption in a social network reaches a critical tipping point. In other words, cluster effects are the cool things that people do when all of their friends can do the same things. We take cluster effects for granted in the Internet space because, by and large, entire friend groups can jump onto a computer, grab a browser, and login to a website. In terms of clusters, the barriers to Facebook or MySpace are more personal than infrastructural. (Those who lack general access tend to have friends who lack access.) Mobile phones are different. Even if all of my friends have a Nokia N95, the likelihood that we’re all on the same carrier with the same plan is next to null. The result is that I can’t install an app onto my phone and expect all of my friends to be able to play along. This kills mobile social software from the getgo.

So far, there have been few examples of dense mobile adoption platforms. There’s the Crackberry, but that audience isn’t exactly the most innovatively social. The Sidekick was impressive amongst deaf communities and urban youth, but T-Mobile managed to lock that puppy down so heavily that no innovative practices really emerged. Still, if you look at the AIM usage in those clusters, you get a good indicator of the potential. And that’s all folks.

The iPhone has the best chance of hitting that tipping point of anything out there. For the most part, everyone is stuck on AT&T. And everyone gets a data plan. And the phone is semi-open. The price is still out of reach for most high schoolers who rely on parental pass-me-downs, but it has a decent chance of hitting other clusters. I was banking on urban 20-somethings, but I love the idea of it hitting cab driver clusters.

Right now, a phone is primarily a 1-1 communication device and, if you’re lucky, an information access device and a portal to the web. Interesting things can happen when the mobile is a platform itself. In other words, when you can assume that everyone around you has the same tool, you can start doing networked activities that don’t rely on a website. Cluster effects in mobile will be what happens when the LCD is not texting. From there, you can innovate. Sure, we’re going to see a plethora of mobile social network sites and mobile location friend services and mobile dating and mobile media sharing communities. The first wave will always be a translation of the web. But once you have cluster effects, you can also start innovating and finding new services and tools that allow people to connect in meaningful way. New games can emerge. New social services. Innovation in this space will be iterative – it will involve throwing things out to the market and seeing what consumers do and do not do. It will require iterating based on their practices and not trying to shove those curvy creatures into square holes. But there’s no point in leaving the starting block until cluster effects are underway because, sadly, iterating in imagination land inevitably leads to techno-utopian fantasies instead of meaningful applications.

Gosh do I want to see cluster effects triggered in mobile space. There’s such great potential for interesting things to take place. Sure, I’d rather see it take place on open platforms and open networks. And I am a bit worried that, without openness, we’re going to see some not-so-good side effects. I definitely share Zittrain’s fear of non-generative technologies. But part of me would rather fucked up market effects trigger cluster effects instead of governmental decrees. We all know that something has to break in mobile somewhere sometime soon. Our options are limited. Option 1: all carriers and handset makers need to start playing along. Option 2: some combination of handset/carrier triggers massive adoption. Option 3: municipal wifi emerges, allowing the web to serve as a temporary bridge. Option 4: governmental intervention demands platform infrastructure. These options all have downsides… Option 1 is a pipedream. Option 2 creates a monopoly risk. Option 3 will take a long time to unfold and still requires handset compatibility. Option 4 is more realistic in some countries than others.

Anyhow, there’s a decent chance that Apple & AT&T will screw this one up, but they have the best chance to hit Option 2 right now. And really, I’m bored. And I want a new phenomenon to study. And I want to see what happens when people can do weird and interesting mobile-based social stuff. I’m especially curious how this might affect mobile-centric populations, although that’s still a ways off. But yeah, possibility is in the air.

So…. AT&T, Apple, and Market Research Firms: I strongly encourage that you watch the network density of iPhone adoption. (Note: raw numbers don’t matter… you want density of adoption amongst pre-existing friend groups.) If there’s anything you can do to encourage network density, you won’t regret it. If you can tip full clusters to the same platform with all-you-can-eat plans, you can launch all sorts of interesting things that will fundamentally alter practice and change the mobile landscape. Please don’t screw it up.

seeking a productive relationship with medicine and the Internet

Ever since I left Beijing, I’ve felt like hell. A myriad of odd and seemingly disconnected symptoms have plagued me all month. My least favorite is the persistent cough that tastes like iron that makes me think I’m coughing up my lungs for realz. I find the sneezing to be mostly entertaining, although 14+ sessions a day of 3+ sneezes each has gotten a little overwhelming, even if said sneezes are awfully cute. Most of the others are just odd. None of them are worrying, except in aggregate. I feel like my body is rebelling against its very existence. Unfortunately, the seriousness of the odd symptoms took a turn for the worse this weekend. The combination of dizziness, nausea, and loss of vision forced me to leave a geek campout that I had been looking forward to for quite some time. Luckily, good friends were there to worry about me and help me get back to LA.

The Internet is dangerous when you have a disparate set of odd symptoms. There’s good reason to believe that I have mono, rare allergies, and a wide array of different cancers. Needless to say, I don’t trust the Internet to diagnose me. So I set about trying to find a way to get a doctor to help me. For once, I have real health insurance. (Of course, that doesn’t help so much when you don’t have a primary care physician because getting an appointment is a bitch. And goddess knows that going to the ER in LA sounds like the worst idea possible.) I ended up going to a university clinic where the doctor listened to my symptoms, decided that I must have migraine auras, wrote me a prescription and whisked me out of there before I had time to process what was said. Not a single test, unless you count the reflex one. I paid an absurd price for the meds and then went home to read about them on the Internet.

What I found bothered me. Oddly, the list of symptoms for migraine auras pretty much matched up with the list of side effects for the medicine. What it supposedly treats are also what it might cause. While headaches are not a requirement for migraine auras, headache-free migraines are rare and usually involve a history of related migraines. I don’t have these problems. So I’m sitting here, reading about a diagnosis that doesn’t seem right and reading about a medicine that seems to cause more problems than it helps. Besides, the instructions indicate to take the medicine when I have a headache. And furthermore, what does this have to do with my iron-tasting cough?

While the Internet is not diagnosing me, it is making me call into question the supposed diagnosis and treatment. I feel both empowered and disempowered by this source of information. Or rather, what makes me feel disempowered is the lack of a way of integrating this information into a productive move towards wellness. If I take the meds, I’m subjecting my body to chemicals that seem unnecessary and irrelevant. If I don’t, I’ve just wasted a day and am back to square one in feeling shitty with no path forward. Part of me wants to call the doctor, but I didn’t like the dynamic in our meeting so I can’t imagine a phone one where I come bearing Internet information. Instead, I will see another doctor.

All of this makes me wonder… isn’t there a better way to integrate information and medicine in a productive manner? I mean, I’ve read Birth of the Clinic and I know all about the power relations involved in medicine, but can’t we undo that somehow? I know that the doctors don’t know everything but I hate being treated like an idiot in the clinic and feeling like a criminal when I investigate my diagnosis/treatment and, implicitly, call into question the authority and power of the doctor. All I want is to be healthy and to know why my body feels like crap. What will it take to make medicine a collaborative endeavor? I’ve known some awesome doctors who are more collaborative over the years, but why can’t that be the norm? And why can’t there be a better way to match doctors and patients than geographic lookups on insurance websites? How can we get Yelp-like descriptions of doctors rather than the RateMyProfessor-esque ratings that do exist? What’s it going to take for the walls between patients and doctors to come down?

Yes, I’m ranting. I need something to do with this pent-up ickiness. Besides, ranting here also serves to explain why I’m dreadfully behind in responding to everything, especially anything that requires thinking. Sorry about that. My brain is moosh. I just hope that my angry body isn’t doing permanent damage on my mooshy brain.

PS: I can’t wait to be healthy and post-dissertation so my blog stops looking so lame.

FISA, Obama, and the Internet People

FISA (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) is a thorny piece of legislation. It started out relatively sane back in the 70s, but in a post-9/11 culture, it got all FUBARed. It was amended by the PATRIOT Act and then there was a revision done called the Protect America Act (gotta love the naming here, right?) Well, this last bit expired and there’s a new amendment act that’s pending in Congress (and likely to pass today).

The biggest problem with this piece of legislation is that it would provide immunity for the big Telcos against all sorts of lawsuits where they’re being sued for violating people’s privacy. (Think: warrantless wiretapping, AT&T turning over all customer records, etc.) The rest of the legislation is rather murky but it’s set in a political landscape where there is good reason to question governmental decisions wrt surveillance. There are good reasons to provide adequate tools for intelligence, but one must raise their eyebrows when private enterprises are getting immunity for breaking the law at the request of the government.

So, Obama was initially against this piece of legislation. For some combination of political reasons that I’ve lost track of, he’s compromised and is backing the new FISA extension while just verbally lamenting the immunity provisions [1]. Well, folks are pretty pissed. Tens of thousands signed up for a Group on MyBarackObama called Senator Obama – Please Vote NO on Telecom Immunity – Get FISA Right, following a Facebook-style protest. This type of digital collective action is piquing the interest of all sorts of folks, including those behind the Personal Democracy Forum. Micah Sifry’s analysis is a must read and there are other good ones there: [1] [2] [3]

As fans were throwing more and more public hissy fits, Obama was forced to respond. Members of his staff posted his response to their blog and took comments, resulting in an onslaught (more than 600 comments in 90 minutes). Obama tried to defend himself and what it means to make unpopular decisions to compromise.

It’s not likely to do any good. Obama is going to vote for this piece of legislation and, even if he doesn’t, all of the Republican Senators and most of the Democrats will. (And any moment now…) Still, what I find fascinating is how many people have gotten up in arms about this. FISA is not the kind of legislation that most people get their heads around. Yet, I talked to all sorts of folks in the last week and while they had no idea what FISA was, they thought that it was bad and were worried that Obama was backing it. They had heard about FISA through the collective mobilization efforts. They may not have seen or signed the Care2 Petition or the Night of Facebook Action or the Facebook group or the Get FISA Right website, but they’d heard about the rumblings even though the media coverage has been downright lousy. They had a sense that there was a disconnect. More importantly, folks felt empowered to speak back and they were able to raise their voices loud enough to demand a response. Even if that response wasn’t what they hoped for, that’s still fascinating.

As I watch this unfold, I’m both in awe of the collective mobilization efforts and utterly confused about the actual dialogue. I still can’t figure out why Obama is backing FISA (and “compromise” isn’t a reason). I don’t understand why Congress thinks it’s so important to pass this bill even with the immunity provisions. Every “Get FISA Right” website, petition, and call to action tells me to encourage my Senators to stop FISA without telling me anything about FISA other than the immunity provision. Only Wikipedia is articulating the provisions. There are more in-depth discussions, like Tim Ferriss’ interview with Daniel Ellsberg, but they are few and far between. So I find it interesting that there’s a lot of mobilization without a lot of articulate information, dialogue, or debate. Even the politicians seem to be avoiding getting into the details.

As we think about the role of the Internet People in political actions, I can’t help but wonder what it means that there’s more mobilization than information. The conversation seems to circle around “compromise” rather than focus on the dynamics of the provisions and the logic behind them. This seems quite odd to me.

PS: In a tangential, but related political reality check, the Telcos are now suing cities that have decided to provide Internet access as a public good. So on one hand, the government is providing immunity to Telcos and, on the other, the Telcos are now suing to stop the government from serving the people. Gotta love it.

Update: Moments after posting this, the NYTimes reported FISA passed. Obama voted for the bill. Attempts to eradicate the immunity provisions failed. And, much to my irritation, the age old privacy myth was voiced by Senator Bond who said there was nothing to fear in the bill “unless you have Al Qaeda on your speed dial.” ::grumble::grumble::

Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Online Videos

Fair use is an uber tricky legal issue. It is meant to provide protection for people to use copyright material in limited ways without seeking permission. (For example, fair use allows academics to comment on copyrighted content as part of their work.) The problem with fair use as a legal doctrine is that it’s defense-only. Anyone can sue you for violating their copyright and you can declare fair use, but you will still have to pay onerous legal bills to defend that claim. Given the typical economic inequality between copyright holders and fair use practitioners, just the threat of a lawsuit tends to silence fair use practitioners. It’s really a sad state of affairs. The lack of clear guidance means that creativity tends to be squelched as copyright holders systematically manage a campaign of terror, even when they’re not in the legal right of way.

Fair use is becoming a bigger and bigger issue as more people get involved in creative acts that involve others’ content. Fan fiction, video remix, video parody, etc. are all practices that involve others’ copyright, but are also arguably fair use. While these practices predated the Internet, the Internet makes them much more visible. This means that more people get to see such creativity, but it also means that the copyright owners tend to get more outraged. And they tend to go on cease and desist rampages, even when the practitioners are engaged in fair use practices.

There’s currently no legal solution, but some of the best minds in cultural practice and law have come together to develop a “Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Online Videos” (organized by the Center for Social Media). This document is not a legal instruction guide, but a set of best practices. This document also opens up an opportunity for good dialogue about the relationship between law/policy and cultural practices. I commend Pat Aufderheide, Peter Jaszi, and the members of the committee (Michael C. Donaldson, Anthony Falzone, Lewis Hyde, Mizuko Ito, Henry Jenkins, Michael Madison, Pamela Samuelson, Rebecca Tushnet, and Jennifer Urban) for putting together a tremendous set of guidelines for practitioners. Hopefully this will help everyone involved.