Monthly Archives: September 2008

Teens, Video Games, and Civics

Last week, Pew released a report on “Teens, Video Games, and Civics” that made its way around the web (see posts by Mimi Ito, Amanda Lenhart, Cathy Davidson). Briefly, some findings:

  • Almost all (97%) of teens play games. They play many different kinds of games and gender is a salient factor.
  • Gaming is often social and teens often game with people they know.
  • Parental monitoring of game play varies.
  • Teens encounter both pro-social and anti-social behavior while gaming.
  • There are civic dimensions to video game play.

I want to follow-up on that last finding and the connected findings because it’s important. Games are regularly referenced as proof that the world is ending. The stereotypical image of a gamer is an oily-haired, pimply-faced geeky boy with no social skills or interest in human interaction. The prevalence of gaming amongst youth dispels that notion, but there is still a myth that those who game are anti-social. As such, it is often assumed that gaming makes people anti-social, anti-community, anti-civic.

Pew’s findings show that there is no correlation between civic/political activity and gaming. In other words, high participation in gaming does not decrease civic participation. That said, gaming characteristics and in-person social gaming are correlated with civic engagement. Likewise, in-depth participation that involves social interaction related to the game (like participating in forums) is also correlated with civic engagement. Most importantly, “civic gaming experiences are more equally distributed than many other civic learning opportunities” because teens can get access to civic gaming experiences even when they can’t get access to other forms of civic life.

In other words, participation in gaming does not cause a decrease in civic participation and, if anything, certain forms of gaming activity are correlated with civic engagement (although causality cannot be determined).

All too often, we blame technology for the downfall of society. Gaming has long been the super demon, the crux of media effects panics. It’s fantastic to have a study to point to that conclusively shows that our fears make no sense. Yet, this also raises important questions:

  • If there are correlations between civic engagement and gaming practices, can we engender certain forms of civic participation through gaming? In other words, is the link connected to other factors or is there an element of causality at play?
  • If we understand that teens with certain practices are more likely to be civically minded, can we tap them there for other forms of civic engagement?
  • Are there ways to design games that encourage civically minded participation?
  • What will it take for people to stop fearing games and realize that learning takes place beyond the classroom?

Understanding Socio-Technical Phenomena in a Web2.0 Era

Earlier this week, I had the honor of giving a talk at the opening of the Microsoft Research New England Lab. I have uploaded a crib of that talk, entitled “Understanding Socio-Technical Phenomena in a Web2.0 Era” for anyone who is interested in what I had to say. The abstract is here:

Web2.0 signals an iteration in Internet culture, shaped by changes in technology, entrepreneurism, and social practices. Beneath the buzzwords that flutter around Web2.0, people are experiencing a radical reworking of social media. Networked public spaces that once catered to communities of interest are now being leveraged by people of all ages to connect with people they already know. Social network sites like MySpace and Facebook enable people to map out their social networks in order to create public spaces for interaction. People can use social media to vocalize their thoughts, although having a blog or video feed doesn’t guarantee having an audience. Tagging platforms allow people to find, organize and share content in entirely new ways. Mass collaborative projects like Wikipedia allow people to collectively create valuable cultural artifacts. These are but a few examples of Web2.0.

Getting to the core of technologically-mediated phenomena requires understanding the interplay between everyday practices, social structures, culture, and technology. In this talk, I will map out some of what’s currently taking place, offer a framework for understanding these phenomena, and discuss strategies for researching emergent practices.

Videos of my talk along with the other talks at the event can be found here. For those interested in computer science education (or CS in general), I strongly recommend the one by Erik Demaine (where he makes a compelling case for how computer science is everywhere). For those into design, definitely check out the talk by Bill Buxton (where he refutes the notion that everyone is a designer). Both of these talks had me giggling and smiling for hours.

the Internet Lexicon

Over at the Berkman Center, a bunch of Fellows put together The Internet Lexicon (spearheaded by none other than The Great David Weinberger). The Internet Lexicon is “a wiki-based list of Webby people whose names are treated as if they were definable words.” To make me giggle uncomfortably, someone (presumably David) defined me:

boyd, danah (v) to provide an environment for floating new ideas. E.g., “Sociologists were boyd by the research showing the class differences between Facebook and MySpace.”

Some other entertaining ones:

shirky, clay (n) A tool for opening the most securely locked objects. E.g., “We’ll never get past this door…unless someone has brought a shirky.”

wu, tim (v) to attempt to persuade while staying strictly neutral.

zuckerman, ethan (n) One who pays equal attention to all species, no matter how exotic or unfamiliar. E.g., “Who takes care of the zoo? Why, the zuckerman, of course!”

zittrain, jonathan (n) a passenger locomotive conveying one in a direction over which one may be powerless. E.g., “I wish I could stand and pull the emergency brake cord to prevent this vehicle from plunging over a cliff, but it is, alas, a zittrain.”

And of course, one cannot forget David:

weinberger, david (n) a delicious sandwich that makes sense of countless miscellaneous ingredients in an entertaining fashion. E.g., “The acclaimed chef threw up his hands and let his customers combine his mis-en-place, venison and precious truffles into fantastic weinbergers.”

::giggle:: Happy One Web Day!! Cheers to the Internet and its role in shaping society! ::clink::

I will be joining Microsoft Research in January

Guess who has a post-dissertation job? [Yes, that implies I’m actually going to finish this *#$@! dissertation.] ::bounce:: In January, I will be joining the newly minted Microsoft Research New England in Boston, MA. w00000t!!!!! I couldn’t be more ecstatic.

For those who don’t know Microsoft Research (MSR), it’s a pure research lab. What this means is that researchers are hired to advance the state of knowledge in their respective areas of research. MSR is a different structure than Microsoft proper and researchers are expected to publish in peer-reviewed journals and they are evaluated on the contributions they make to the field. Researchers are welcome to collaborate with whoever they please, engage with students at local institutions, and co-teach classes if that’ll help them fulfill their research agendas. Researchers are welcome to pursue the research topics that they find to be interesting and important. In essence, being a MSR researcher is quite similar to being a faculty at a research institution. To the shock of most folk, MSR is not about directly contributing to the bottom line of Microsoft, but about advancing knowledge that will benefit the future of computing.

As many of you know, I’ve been quite cagey about the possibility of the future for quite some time. I’ve been frustrated with academic restrictions and fearful that academia wouldn’t let me do the kind of research that I wanted to do. I’ve been equally scared of industrial research because I’ve watched too much research get trapped down behind closed corporate walls. I’ve always been in awe of MSR because of its openness but I wasn’t really jumping to move to Redmond. I had been pretty set that I was going to go independent and pay the bills through freelancing. Then, a funny combination of events happened.

It all began with Dopplr. Linda Stone noticed that I was swinging through Seattle and she called me up and told me that I had to do dinner with her. Linda’s plots are always tremendous so of course I said yes. When I arrived, she introduced me to Jennifer Chayes and Christian Borgs, the physicists who were starting the new MSR lab. Jennifer immediately began interrogating me about my research and about social science more broadly. To say Jennifer & I clicked is a bit of an understatement. Like me, Jennifer is loud, crazy, and intense. We got along like peas in a pod and spent the night chattering away. When she told me that I should come work for her, I laughed it off and didn’t think much about it. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Jennifer and Christian’s vision for the lab aligned with my view of research. They believe in interdisciplinary work, believe in the ways that new ideas can come from unexpected collaborations. While I know a lot of social scientists who curl their nose at the idea of a lab full of physicists, mathematicians, and economists, I find that quite appealing. I love the idea of such a diverse group thinking about how the world works from different angles. Plus, meeting the folks at the new lab – Henry Cohn, Yael Kalai, Adam Kalai, and Butler Lampson – only made me more intrigued by it. Everyone was so ridiculously nice and even though we didn’t work on the same problems we found funny intersections.

The more that I talked with folks at MSR, the more I fell in love with the possibility of going there. And then I started meeting with execs and realized that what MSR researchers were telling me fit with broader strategy. I met with Rick Rashid, the head of MSR, who explained why he started MSR and how he saw it fit into the company. I met with Ray Ozzie (who I’ve known and adored for quite some time) and he confirmed the importance of research for the future of Microsoft. Both of them made me feel fully confident that my approach to research would not only be tolerated but welcomed. Plus, there’s a broad desire to understand the intersections between computing and all things social which is straight up my alley.

As the pieces came together, I realized that it just made complete sense. Going to MSR will allow me to continue the research I do and it will give me a productive, collaborative, interdisciplinary environment in which to do it. There’s amazing work at MSR concerning social media and even those at MSR-NE who are not working on social media are more than open to the topics engendered by it and more than ecstatic to engage with me. Being in a room full of scientists might not seem like the most obvious fit, but really, you have to meet them to understand how invigorating an environment it is.

Personally, going to MSR will mean a continuation of the good things that I do and a reduction of the things that exhaust me. I will continue to publish, go to conferences, and blog. I will keep my Berkman Center fellowship. I will continue public speaking, political interventions, and sitting on advisory boards. I will get involved in the intellectual communities in Cambridge and collaborate with scholars. I will escape dissertation hell (w00t!). I will escape IRB bureaucracy and have a much more sane ethics review process. I will stop consulting and doing private corporate talks. I will get to lower travel to a sane level. All of this will be possible because I will get paid to do the research that I want to do.

I have no doubt that this move prompts concerned questions from those who know me as well as those who don’t, so let me take a moment to pre-emptively respond to criticisms that I’ve already heard…

  • But you hated Boston… It’s true that Boston and I weren’t the closest of friends. We’ve called a truce and we’re going to see what happens. One thing is for certain: I can’t wait to get back to some very dear friends (although I will miss my west-coast pals). And I *cannot* wait to get back to my favorite gym in the whole wide word: Healthworks. Mmmm… oh goddess do I love that woman-friendly place. I’m even kinda excited by the idea of turtlenecks. I think I look HOTT in turtlenecks.
  • But you’re a Mac fiend… In every company I’ve ever worked for, I’ve always used products produced by competitors. I think that companies who expect employees to buy into their product line hook, line, and sinker are cults. Much can be learned by understanding why people know about your product and prefer a different one. There are plenty of Microsoft products that I use and adore, but I ain’t giving up my beloved Xanadu. And, surprisingly, Microsoft respects this and is willing to let me continue to work on a Mac.
  • But industry research is selling out! When research is useful, people use it. It doesn’t matter if you’re in industry or academia – if you publish for others to read, you’re a fool if you don’t think it’ll get used. MSR is giving me the opportunity to direct my research agenda and produce scholarship for the public good. They will inevitably use what I produce, but they would’ve anyhow. In any other configuration, I would have (and have) consulted for private companies to make ends meet. There is no doubt that I will effectively consult for Microsoft but my research, like always, will be for the public good. I will continue to publish and I will probably publish more since I won’t be writing grant applications or consulting.
  • But job security!?!? I find it odd that academics always point to job security as the reason to stay in academia because I am watching too many of my favorite elder scholars struggle desperately to get research grants to keep their labs going. How is grant-driven academia that forces you to give up research to go out begging for grants considered job security? And besides, I’m happy to keep producing quality work steadily over time rather than racing the hamster wheel for 7 years. At least at MSR, I don’t have to wait to get tenure to be rebellious.
  • But Microsoft is the devil incarnate! Years ago, I crafted a post comparing search companies to evil nation states of the 20th century. I think that my metaphors still hold and I’ve already worked for (and survived) Japan and the States. There is plenty about Microsoft’s history that I have problems with. There are even issues today that I disagree with. But I’ve never been a part of a company (or a nation-state) that I fully agreed with. Even though I dream of going to Canada, I plan to stick it out here and push to make change. Likewise, even inside Microsoft, when I disagree, I will say so. I don’t think that Microsoft is the devil, but I think that they’ve done some really stupid things and are actually working hard to right some of their past wrongs. I commend them for this. And hopefully I can do some good by being there. When I told Bill Buxton that I intended to address this issue here, he offered another perspective: “there’s no merit to being an angel in heaven.” I like that. That’s a good one.

I have every expectation that folks out there will not understand my reasoning and will think poorly of me for choosing to go to MSR, but I’m utterly ecstatic. My interactions with folks at MSR have been non-stop fantabulous. It’s an intellectually stimulating environment where I will have the resources and space to do my research and the encouragement to pursue a social media agenda. And frankly, I can’t wait. I can’t wait to be a part of an invigorating research environment. I can’t wait to think about the intersections of science and social science. I can’t wait to begin a new project and publish, publish, publish. I’m a bit wary about the snow, but we’ll work on that one. At the end of the day, I couldn’t be more pleased. w00000t!!!!!

Oprah, Senate Bill 1738, Child Porn, and Pedophiles

When I first learned that Oprah was doing a show on internet predators, I was wary. Her site emphasized a list of rules for kids centered around “don’t talk to strangers” and centered around the language of “Internet sex predators” and linked to Dateline’s very problematic show. I was concerned that she might use her stature to further ongoing myths about online predation. Oprah proved me wrong. Her show wasn’t talking about internet predators in the sense most people do (although her website reinforces myths); her show focused on the connection between internet child pornography and physical molestation in communities.

Her show detailed the very real and very horrific child porn industry and the ways in which the content being produced continues to grow more and more graphic, especially as live videos are made of young children (often the man’s child) being molested and harmed based on requests by child porn consumers. An investigator detailed the ways in which child molesters use child porn to normalize their abuse of children that they know. Oprah repeatedly emphasized that most children know their molesters and that the real risks for molestation are very local – family members, neighbors, community members. The experts she brought in were very knowledgeable and clear about what they didn’t know. For example, the investigator made it clear that we simply don’t know the causality relations of consuming child porn and molestation but that data suggests that there is overlap a decent percentage of the time and that there is no doubt that large numbers of children are harmed in the making of this content. Three teenagers and their parents discussed one of their neighbors who was convicted of drugging and molesting them and at least 5 other of his daughter’s friends. This molester was found through his child porn consumption and investigators found videos of him molesting these girls. Although each of the three girls had their doubts about their friend’s dad, none of them knew that they were being molested while drugged until the videos were found.

The Internet connection is interesting in all of this. The investigator made it very clear that the Internet allows him to trace the networks of potential child porn distributors, but he simply does not have the resources to follow up on all of the leads. Oprah emphasized that only 2% of leads are ever followed. Although a few pot shots are taken at the Internet for enabling distribution, there’s an implicit message that the Internet is actually enabling investigators to get a better handle on the problem. That said, because of lack of resources, they simply cannot do anything about the issue. Oprah leverages this point to drive home an action item: call your Senators to ask them to pass Senate Bill 1738, the “PROTECT Our Children Act.” Unlike other bills meant to stop the Internet, 1738 focuses on providing resources for investigators, FBI, prosecutors, and other elements of law enforcement to investigate, prosecute, convict, and sentence molesters, partially through the channels of child pornography distribution.

Of course, 1738 is introduced by Biden and Obama (and Clinton) so there are questions of partisanship and I’ve heard rumblings that McCain introduced a similar bill. And there are questions of how much money should be spent. Unfortunately, I can’t really suss out what’s happening in the Senate around this bill. Why hasn’t it been passed? Is it all a matter of politics or are there real issues? Are there things in the bill I should be worried about? I read what I thought was the final text and it seems completely sane to me but maybe I’m missing something.

Still, at the end of the day, I have to commend Oprah for a very real and non-sensational portrait of one aspect of the child molestation issue. I’m also very thankful for her very practical realism about the Internet in this issue. The Internet is undoubtedly allowing easier access to child porn, but it is also allowing investigators to get at guys who show no other markers of their molestation. And I agree with the solution 100%: more funds for law enforcement and much higher penalties for molesters.

[Note: the emphasis on this show was the graphic child porn in which children are clearly abused or harmed in the making of content intended for distribution. There are other classes of child porn which are more complicated and require different prevention mechanisms. For example, porn that is the product of teens and tweens creating nude photos or sex videos of themselves or their friends, whether distributed intentionally or not, is a different class of child porn. The harm in these cases is not often in the making of the content, but the ways in which it gets distributed. Additionally, there are huge issues about how teens and tweens are getting validated or seeking validation by peers through such self-portraiture.]

Facebook and Techcrunch: the costs of technological determinism and configuring users

When Nicole and I were trying to decide what term to use and how to define it, we struggled with the many misinterpretations of social networking sites. “We chose not to employ the term “networking” for two reasons: emphasis and scope. ‘Networking’ emphasizes relationship initiation, often between strangers. While networking is possible on these sites, it is not the primary practice on many of them, nor is it what differentiates them from other forms of computer-mediated communication (CMC).” To our frustration, online dating sites and community forums and other such sites were all getting lumped into the frame “social networking sites.” To clarify, we purposely employed “social network site” to emphasize that what makes this genre of social media unique is the way that it allows people to publicly articulate (and leverage) their social network. It’s a small shift, but a significant one. Some people leverage their network to engage in networking, but many don’t. We wanted to account for this and really scope out what made a specific genre of social media unique.

Folks thought we were crazy. I can’t tell you how many tech folks have told me that no one thinks that “social networking sites” implies that people meet new people. Yet, the moment I walk into any public audience where non-tech parents are present, I’m confronted about how the whole purpose of these sites is to help strangers meet, no? It’s been clear to me for a long time that there’s a divide in understanding when the term “social networking site” is employed. And that has tremendous ramifications for how people engage with these sites and how they are politicized (and regulated).

Well, this curshuffle isn’t over. Today, Tech Crunch reported a brewing controversy over an application that encourages collecting of Friends. An email sent from Facebook to a user states:

Please note that Facebook accounts are meant for authentic usage only. This means that we expect accounts to reflect mainly “real-world” contacts (i.e. your family, schoolmates, co-workers, etc.), rather than mainly “internet-only” contacts. As stated on our home page, Facebook is a social utility that connects you with the people around you, not a “social networking site”. It is meant to help reinforce pre-existing social connections, not build large groups of new ones. If this is in direct contrast to what you expected as legitimate Facebook usage, I apologize for any confusion. This is simply the intention behind the site.

TechCrunch responds by noting that people do connect to people that they don’t know and gives an example of a public figure in the tech world who has mostly connected to people he doesn’t know personally. My co-author Nicole takes up this issue to point out that data shows that most (but obviously not all) users are not engaged in mass connecting to strangers. Fred Stutzman takes this in a different direction by emphasizing that a corporate mantra doesn’t necessarily dictate practice. Later, TechCrunch posted an update from Facebook:

To simplify this a bit, users on Facebook cannot have more than one account and creating another account for the purpose of playing this game violates our Terms of Use. We recognize and appreciate that each person uses Facebook based on their own interests and preferences and are happy to see people meeting new friends on Facebook. To ensure users are comfortable on the site and not burdened by unsolicited contact, we encourage users to add people that reflect their real-world connections and create trusted networks.

Putting these pieces together, we should collectively experience a massive wave of deja vu. Feel the wave, feel it… cuz you know where we saw this issue before? Friendster. Let’s back up.

Nicole is 100% correct that people primarily use Facebook (and MySpace and Friendster) to interact with people they already know. We know this and that’s why we agree that the term “social networking site” is a bit of a red herring. Labeling is simply political and we believed that it’s better to label a genre in a way that best reflects the practices taking place rather than use a term that signals something that is not dominant. (This is particularly important when, as in the case of these sites, the term is used to create cultural misinformation so as to add fire to a moral panic.)

That said, the categorical term that we use to label a particular site or genre of social media does NOT determine practice. The intentions of the designers do NOT determine practice. The demand of the company does NOT determine practice. In science and technology studies (STS), we have a term for this foolish worldview – it’s called “technological determinism” and calling someone a “technological determinist” is an insult. Unfortunately, far too often, companies take on this reductionist role and expect that the technology will determine practice.

A different approach is the “social construction of technology” (see: Bijker, Hughes & Pinch). SCOT argues that technologies shape people and people shape technologies. Practices are not determined by technology, but are driven by how people incorporate technology into their lives. Technologies are then shaped and reshaped to meet people’s needs and desires. In essence, technologies and people evolve together.

When companies and users fail to hold the same worldview, companies typically make one of two moves. Either they roll with user practice and try to encourage the good and shape the bad. In other words, they adopt principles that connect with SCOT. Or they try to demand that users behave exactly as they think they should. This latter approach is often labeled “configuring the users” (see: Grint & Woolgar). Needless to say, configuring users has a bad rap. This means that the companies are trying to demand that users fit into their box and punish them when they construct the technology in ways other than designed.

I dealt with these issues before with Friendster. [See Etech 2004 talk and None of this is Real article.] I also talked about how Friendster made an ass of themselves by acting like arrogant dictators of practice and how other companies could learn from this [See: Friendster vs. MySpace essay and Etech 2006 talk].

So how does this apply to this situation? Facebook is undoubtedly first and foremost about pre-existing networks. As a company, Facebook has every right to stop whatever behaviors it does or does not like. Banning applications that promote collecting is fair game. That said, there are costs to placing restrictions on desired practice, particularly if it results in stopping a large number (or influential group) of people from using the system in ways that they think are best. In other words, if their “intention behind the site” and what others “expected as legitimate Facebook usage” are in great conflict, there’s a problem. What is particularly interesting is that they then move on to say that “accounts that are used solely for the purpose of applications are in violation of their TOS” as if this automatically implies non-authentic usage. This is quite fascinating because I’m sure that plenty of legitimate users created accounts for this. I know people who created accounts for Causes or to play Scrabulous (RIP). Upon clarification, they take a different tactic to say that users “cannot have more than one account.” It’s not clear if the person deleted indeed had multiple accounts or not, but there are plenty of people with only one account who for all intents and purposes engage in the practice of collecting.

Of course, I’ve always found the TOS restriction against multiple accounts quite dubious. Back in the day, when I was obsessed with structural holes, I did a lot of research on people who held multiple accounts. I was fascinated when I started meeting gay men in Europe who had different SIM cards so that they could decide whether to answer their phone as “gay” or “straight.” I know soooo many people who break this TOS for very legitimate reasons involving the potential cost of context collisions. Teachers who have a teacher-friendly profile and a personal one, local politicians and micro-celebrities who have a public profile (not page) and one for their close friends, professionals who have a profile for their college buddies and one for their more presentable side, etc. Still, it is a TOS item.

Yet, the idea that gameplay amongst collecting only occurs through a game is preposterous. I know many folks who collect… micro-celebrities who feel awkward saying no to fans, teenage boys who are hoping to get as many cute girls to notice them as possible, college students running for student government who want to get the attention of as many peers as possible, etc. Hell, as I talk about in Friends, Friendsters, and MySpace Top 8, there are all sorts of reasons why people engage in collecting, not the least of which has to do with status.

OK, so they don’t like collecting and multiple accounts and Apps that encourage them. That’s their right and they can boot folks. But I find it interesting that there’s no room for dialogue or recourse: “Unfortunately, I will not be able to reactivate your account… this decision is final.” That’s where things get very very nasty. People put time and effort into creating a profile in a walled garden and then with the click of a few keys, the company can disappear you in a matter of moments with no opportunity for recourse for failing to abide by its terms and, more significantly, the “intention behind the site.” That’s where Friendster got itself into MASSIVE trouble in their games of whack-a-mole during the “Fakester genocide.” Configuring users, pointing to the TOS to justify deletion, and going after anyone who sees the site differently is a recipe for uh-oh.

Of course, lots of folks have been disappeared from Facebook already. You can piss off a lot of people who lack connections and power, but when you piss off the wrong people, you’ve got a PR nightmare on your hands. And, like it or not, with a blog read by millions, Michael Arrington and his connections are the wrong folks to piss off.

how to throw a ballot party (for American voters)

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you know at least two of the candidates running for President. You might even know the Congresspeople running or if you have a Senator race this year. But do you know who is running for city council, school board, state legislature, or judge? If you have propositions, do you know what they are? Do your friends? Sadly, for most Americans, the answer is a profound no. This can be fixed.

Our democracy is most effective when we have an informed citizenry. This does not just pertain to federal elections, but elections at all levels. Often, the local elections are the most important. The judges that you elect to superior court might be nominated for Supreme Court a few years from now. The people you send to state legislature may be running for federal office in no time. Who you help get experience at the local level shapes what happens at the federal level in all sorts of direct and indirect ways. Furthermore, it affects your life directly.

Wading through information on local elections is undoubtedly a pain in the ass. Sure, you’re about to be inundated with pamphlets telling you which way to vote and if your local newspaper is still functioning, they will inevitably list who they want you to vote for. But is this really what it means to be informed? I think not. Rather than waiting to be told what to do, I vote that each and every one of you hosts a party where you leverage the collective intelligence of those around you.

Steps for throwing a ballot party:

  1. Find your local ballot and make a list of all items that you need to know something about. Make sure to include state legislature, county supervisors, city council, school board, judges, and all local and state propositions. Include anything unique to your area. And if it makes sense, include the federal races, although I usually skip those altogether.
  2. Invite your friends to your house for a ballot party… promise alcohol. Encourage them to indicate which items they’d prefer to research and to invite a friend or two.
  3. Assign all items on the ballot to attendees. Double up or assign multiple if necessary. Try to give people a mix of races/measures.
  4. Ask all attendees to research their assigned items. Encourage them to document the pros/cons, the people who are supporting and protesting each, any and all information they can find about the issues at hand.
  5. If it’s your thing, buy a lot of alcohol. Wading though a hefty ballot can be better with alcohol and there’s nothing like being tipsy while debating with friends. Finding a comedian also helps tremendously. This eases tension. If all else fails, record The Daily Show or Colbert.
  6. When everyone is gathered, go through the ballot, item by item. Have the attendee(s) who researched it detail what they learned, what they couldn’t find, and what their impression is based on their research. Discuss. Document the discussion.
  7. After the party, put together a “cheat sheet” from the night, listing each element, the key issues, and the collective consensus. I usually use YES, yes, mixed, no, NO and make a special note if case statements are necessary [e.g., if (pro_bond_measures) YES;]. Send this document to all of your friends who attended and those who didn’t. At the top of the sheet, indicate the election day and last day for registering in your community. If you’re a geek, put this up on a wiki and share it with everyone in your local area.
  8. The day before the last day of registration, call up all of your friends to confirm that they’ve registered. If not, volunteer to drive them to where they can register.
  9. The night before the election, resend the list to everyone and encourage them to vote.

I’ve thrown ballot parties for years now. Not only does this result in a fun excuse for a party, but it’s also an ideal way to make sure everyone knows what the hell they’re voting for. Even if you and your friends don’t agree, at least an informed decision is being made. This also results in network effects. Your vote might not shape an election, but if you get 30 of your friends to vote one way through information and they get 30 of their friends, … well, that changes the results quite quickly, especially for local elections where decisions are often made based on hundreds or tens of votes.

Many of us (self included) are actively working to become global citizens. Often, this means that we know more about what’s going on in Darfur or Georgia than we do about what decisions are being made at our school board. Don’t get me wrong – being a global citizen is really important. Yet, while local politics may feel unimportant in comparison to world crises, the decisions made at a local decision affect your life in so many ways. Who fixes your potholes? How does your trash disappear? How are your hospitals structured? Who makes sure you have water, power, and gas? We always bitch and moan about the state of the union, but too often, we forget about the importance of local communities. They matter. And being an informed citizen really matters. Democracy isn’t about presidential races. It’s about engaging in civics at all levels to make society a better place. It’s about knowing who’s running, what they stand for, and how they will make your community a better place.

If you’re reading this, please, I beg you, get informed and vote. This election isn’t just about Obama and McCain and you shouldn’t think that you’re relieved of civic duty because your state is not a swing state. Sure, your vote might not matter when it comes to the presidential election, but it definitely matters when it comes to local elections. The vast majority are decided by very small margins and if you engage and encourage others to engage, you have the power to shape those. Throw a ballot party, spam your friends, hell, drive them to the bloody polls. Just get involved. Our democracy depends on it.

Update: For propositions and ballot measures, check out Ballotpedia, a great wikified resource of information on ballot measures.

public meeting of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, Sept 23-24 at Harvard

Many of you know that I’ve been co-directing the Internet Safety Technical Task Force as part of my fellowship at Berkman and I wanted to give you a few updates and invite you to the public meeting.

My role on the TF has primarily been to lead the Research Advisory Board and help the ISTTF ground their analysis and recommendations in a solid understanding of research. At earlier meetings, researchers have come and presented their work and we’ve made videos, slides, and handouts from these meetings available here. Also, the fabulous Andrew Schrock and I are currently working on a literature review of all research in this space which we will share here shortly for public vetting.

While I’ve been working on the research side of things, the Technical Advisory Board has been reviewing various proposed technical solutions to safety concerns regarding youth. On September 23-24 at Harvard, there will be public presentations of some of these technologies for public feedback, questions, and critique. We’re still sorting out the schedule, but some valuable information on the public meeting is here.

I’d like to invite (AND ENCOURAGE) all of you who are vested in these topics to join us if at all possible. This will be a great opportunity to see how different companies are proposing to address the internet safety concerns that have been raised. The topics will include age verification, filtering, text analysis, and authentication. This is a great opportunity to provide feedback (both technical and social) to this process. Many of you have strong opinions on what kind of technical solutions are and are not possible and it would be super duper helpful if you turned up to state those thoughts on record.

If you can’t, I totally understand and we will ask for broad feedback afterwards. But please do spread the word to those who you think are interested in or concerned about these issues. I would really like to see some thoughtful people in the audience asking tough questions.

UPDATE: Each of the tech companies who are presenting had to document detailing what their product does to address safety issues. All of these are available for public viewing on the agenda. If you’ve got comments based on reading these and can’t attend, feel free to leave them in the comments of this blog post.

United, my trip from hell, and karmic retribution

When I learned of how United’s stock plummeted after an information mishap this week, I have to admit that I laughed out lot. It wasn’t a LOL, but full-on hysterics. I couldn’t help but think: karma, bites you in the ass every time. Y’see, whenever I think of United, I think of my trip from hell this summer and the atrocious ways in which the company handled it. I shudder when I hear their name and when travel agents try to put me on a United flight, my emotional response is pure panic.

United managed to dehumanize me at an unprecedented level this summer. United’s attitudes were worse than AT&T and Blue Cross… combined. I felt used, abused, and taken for a ride. I missed the wedding of two dear friends and was practically laughed at by United when I voiced my dissent. I have never spent so much money to be treated so terribly. And I’m so bitter about it that I do everything possible to dissuade those that I know and love from getting on one of their aircrafts. (So for those of you booking flights, think twice before going with United.)

Earlier this summer, I went to China. I got there via American, did my speaking thing, and then went to leave. By that time, my lungs were a mess and I was anxious to leave. Plus, two of my dear friends were about to get married and I was to leave Beijing to join them for their rehearsal dinner. I had booked the United flight because it was the only direct to Dulles. I was wary of United and so I had checked multiple other routes and felt confident that I should be able to get to DC one way or another, especially since I was booking an expensive business class seat (almost $10K). I should’ve known. Here’s the abbreviated story:

As we were about to board, they reported mechanical issues. We were to wait around. Delay after delay and eventually I went to the Lounge, hoping to find a United rep to tell me what was going on. All of the other business folks were there too, irate. Much to my horror, there were no United reps there because it was a partner lounge. Worse, the Air China employees were downright hostile and unhelpful. I asked to get onto alternate flights, but the Air China people told me they couldn’t help me and, more irritatingly, wouldn’t. They told me I had to speak to United. I asked where I could find a United rep and I was told (rudely) that I would have to go back out through security/customs to the front desk. My visa wouldn’t allow this. I asked if I could call United from there and they told me no. Everyone around me was calling back to the States to get information. There was no WiFi and only 5 Internet data ports so there was no way to go that route.

Things got worse as the night progressed. It became clear that the flight was to be cancelled, but they wouldn’t cancel it which prohibited any of us from being moved to other flights. Finally, late into the evening, United reps came around to hand out vouchers to a hotel. No clear instructions were given and it was utter mayhem. From the time they gave us the vouchers to the time that they got us to the hotel (sans luggage) took three hours. The United reps called twice in the middle of the night to wake us and tell us that we would be leaving earlier.

At 9AM, I met the United reps downstairs and they hurried us onto shuttles. We got to the airport (having collectively bonded) and when we were given our boarding passes, they had vastly different board times on them: 11.45, 12:15, 14:15. Much confusion, every rep said something different. It also became clear that there was no plane and that we wouldn’t be leaving.

Y’see… we learned later that they didn’t have a mechanic. They didn’t bring one in the night before and they didn’t have one in the morning. We sat around the lounge all morning, getting more and more angry as no information was provided and the China Air folks continued to be hostile to our presence. Many flights came and went but we weren’t allowed on those other ones. At noon, a representative showed up with little to no information and was bombarded by pissed off people with questions that she couldn’t answer. She told us that she’d return again at 1PM. It took us a few more hours to get out of there and we boarded a plane with barely working A/C and a worn-out but gracious flight staff.

Not only did I miss the rehearsal dinner, I missed the whole wedding. I was exhausted, miserable, and emotionally drained. The only people who were remotely polite were the United reps who were too junior to have any information whatsoever and just kept apologizing in broken English and the very exhausted flight attendants. Everyone else was as rude and horrid as possible, along with completely unhelpful, unresponsive, and unaccommodating. Even though there were a bazillion alternatives (who weren’t even flying full), United did nothing to help. It wasn’t even that I wasn’t high enough on the totem poll – they were universally assholes to everyone. I asked a few of the Business Class passengers why they flew United and their reason was depressing: “because my company makes me.” A few of them told me that when they flew personal, they flew anything but United.

At the end, we were given a “friendship kit” to submit to United. I did, along with a four page letter detailing what happened when. The response? A generic apology letter and a $150 discount for future flights. As an apology for a mangled $10K flight. Fuck you too United.

My partner always makes fun of me for being an overly loyal customer. It runs both ways though. I’m loyal to those companies who I feel treat me with respect and I hold long grudges against those that appear to enjoy screwing me. Grudges that I’m happy to share with others and incite mini-boycotts. And, at the end of the day, when I watch such ungracious, condescending, cruel, and greedy companies get fucked over by an act of fate or information accident or however you’d like to explain how that old article about their earlier bankruptcy ended up getting treated as contemporary, well, I just have to laugh. Karma… it bites you in the ass every time.

Community Forum on “Meeting the Public’s Information Needs for Silicon Valley”

As many of you know, I’m on the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities. The goal of this commission is to assess the information needs for local communities (in relation to democracy) and determine how to best achieve them. This involves the intersection of old and new media, grassroots action and government intervention, technology, education, and policy. For more details, check out some background info.

We are hosting a series of public forums. The first will take place in Silicon Valley on September 8. Details are here. I know many of you live in or near the SV so I thought you should know about said meeting. Anyone is welcome, although you need to RSVP by September 5. For those unable to attend, it will be webcast live and recordings will be available.

I’m sure that it’ll be interesting, especially for those of you who are fascinated by journalism, information dissemination, creating a healthy political public, etc. Personally, I’ve been loving the private discussions we’ve been having and I look forward to this next meeting. So I hope to see some of you next week!