Category Archives: digitalness

Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age

Over the last 18 months, I have had the great honor of serving as a Commissioner on the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities. Today, it gives me great pleasure to announce that we have released our report:

Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age

We begin our report by asking, “What are the information needs of communities in a democracy?” Following this reflective analysis, we outline findings and recommendations, centered on three objectives:

  • Maximize the availability of relevant and credible information to all Americans and their communities
  • Strengthen the capacity of individuals to engage with information
  • Promote individual engagement with information and the public life of the community

The report concerns itself with journalism, open government, broadband access, digital/media literacy, skills, civic engagement, local communities, socioeconomic and sociotechnical inequality, education, free speech, etc. So my guess is that if you’re reading this blog, this report is DEFINITELY for you. And if you don’t want to read the whole thing, don’t worry, we have an executive summary at the top. But please do look at it. And forward it along to anyone who you think might appreciate it.

And for those who know me… can you spot the hair-brained danah idea? And guess its roots? ::kiss:: to EZ!

(If you happen to be reading this during the day on October 2, we are streaming the launch event from the Newseum.)

xkcd meets reality

Earlier this week, xkcd posted a fantastic comic about the apocalypse happening and the dead rising to walk the earth. In the comic, mathematicians scribbled frantically and raced to Paul Erdos’ grave to get him to sign a document that is presumably co-authorship on a paper. (For the uninitiated, read about the Erdos number.)

Anyhow, I forwarded this to Henry Cohn – a mathematician friend of mine – who sent me the most hysterical email that I just had to share:

By the way, there’s no need to wait until the end times to write papers with dead mathematicians. One example of this is the paper “Higher algebraic K-theory of schemes and of derived categories” by R. W. Thomason and Thomas Trobaugh, which Thomason wrote with his deceased friend Trobaugh after Trobaugh appeared to him in a dream:

“The first author must state that his coauthor and close friend, Tom Trobaugh, quite intelligent, singularly original, and inordinately generous, killed himself consequent to endogenous depression. Ninety-four days later, in my dream, Tom’s simulacrum remarked, ‘The direct limit characterization of perfect complexes shows that they extend, just as one extends a coherent sheaf.’ Awaking with a start, I knew this idea had to be wrong, since some perfect complexes have a non-vanishing K_0 obstruction to extension. I had worked on this problem for 3 years, and saw this approach to be hopeless. But Tom’s simulacrum had been so insistent, I knew he wouldn’t let me sleep undisturbed until I had worked out the argument and could point to the gap. This work quickly led to the key results of this paper. To Tom, I could have explained why he must be listed as a coauthor.”

I want to evolve to not hear the cell phone

Whenever I’m in a public space where folks are blabbing away on their phones, I want to scream. Trains, cafes, busses… they all drive me batty. I’m dreading the day in which cell phones are viable on planes. Or when VOIP isn’t blocked. When I’m forced to listen to half of a conversation, I start fuming. First, I mentally grumble about how rude the person is. But then I start berating myself, lamenting my age, and wondering if I were younger or from a different culture if half-conversations wouldn’t drive me so utterly insane.

Years ago, I read a study (that I now can’t find) about why half-conversations are so disruptive. Your brain is pretty good about tuning out conversations in a restaurant, but it sucks at tuning out just half of a conversation. Y’see – your brain wants to fill in the other half. It worries that it’s supposed to respond and so it listens even when you tell it not to. You can’t just close your ears and blasting other sounds into them may not achieve the desired serenity either, especially if you’re like me and the urge to dance kicks in with the music.

This all makes sense for those of us whose brains stabilized pre-mobile phones. But I can’t help but wonder if this is changing. If you grow up in a world where half-conversations are everywhere, does your brain cope with it better? Does it learn to tune it out? If you grow up in a culture where everyone is always rattling on loudly in public, can you tune out noise better than if you grew up in a culture where silence is more than norm? I’m always fascinated by cross-cultural events involving people from more quiet cultures (say Japan, Finland) and those from louder ones (say Russia, Israel). Do these cultural differences affect your ability to tune out noise?

More importantly, can I be retrained? Can I evolve to not hear those blasted half-conversations? I know that I can learn to tune out car noise after a few weeks in a new apartment. What will it take for me to stop fuming? I feel far too old and crotchety before my time on this one.

feeding quasi-“legitimate” trolls in an attention economy

In an attention economy, it’s better to ignore than to critique. This drives me absolutely bloody batty. Anyone who’s been online for too darn long knows has heard the expression, “don’t feed the trolls.” This stems from the general belief that trolls engaging in trolling for attention. Giving them attention by telling them off feeds into their goals. Thus, the best way to deal with a troll is to ignore them. We know this pattern from offline examples too. Schoolyard bullies are one example and if you stretch it far enough, you can see this concept in “turn the other cheek.” Still, trying to convince everyone out there to ignore a troll isn’t easy and being silent ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

I’m deeply disturbed by the proliferation of troll-like behavior in contemporary life. Why are public figures increasingly appearing whose whole identity is wrapped around driving others batty? Why does it seem as though more people are starting to write controversial books purely to make money off of the attention they receive when others attack them? Why are reputable publications publishing these authors’ tirades against others that are intended specifically to draw them out in a public fight? I guess we know the answer… Or at least the equation. Attention = money. And in the world of media, attention = advertising revenue.

Lately, I’ve found myself biting my tongue a lot. I’m not very good at being silent when I have a strong opinion. To make matters worse, I’m an academic and we’re trained to critique and be critiqued. Yet, in an attention economy, publicly critiquing people whose sole goal is to get massive attention does them more justice than harm. This is understood in marketing as there being no such thing as bad coverage. In a world of blogging and pagerank, critiquing trolls gives them both literal and figurative capital. That’s frustrating as hell. Lately, I’ve found myself encouraging people to not blog about something when it smells like an attention whore. But of course, someone’s feathers still get ruffled and bark bark bark goes the blogosphere.

I have to imagine that folks in marketing land have thought about this, if only to manipulate it. What are good strategies for handling trolls in sheep’s clothing?

traductions de moi

A while back, Noel Burch kindly translated my 2006 AAAS talk on youth and MySpace into French for French Review Mediamorphoses (directed by Laurence Allard and Olivier Blondeau). More recently, Tilly Bayard-Richard translated my Pearson talk on information access and my Knowledge Tree article on public and private into French. In both cases, they approached me to translate these articles because they thought they should be made more widely accessible. I couldn’t be more supportive of this effort. Both acts of kindness have totally taken me aback and I’m tremendously grateful of their time and effort. I want to share these translations in case there are other French readers who might appreciate them.

From time to time, I stumble across blog posts of mine that have been translated, but I do not know of any other translations of my articles. If anyone knows of any, could you send them my way? I would like to make them available through my page of papers.

Also, if you happen to speak multiple languages and feel as though someone could benefit from a translation, please go right ahead and translate any of my articles or talks; I’ll happily post it and credit you. While some folks balk at being translated, I’m all for it if it can help others get access to ideas.

valuing inefficiencies and unreliability

Two deeply embedded values in the world of technology development are efficiency and reliability. Companies pride themselves in maximizing efficiency and reliability and, for the most part, consumers agree. We like when our search engines produce results quickly and reliably. Yet, when it comes to social technologies, I suspect that efficiency and reliability are not the ideal metrics.

Let’s start with reliability. In some senses, we want our social technologies to be reliable – we want to know that our phones will work when we need them and that our email will get to us. While we want perfect reliability for our own needs, we also want there to be failures in the system so that we can blame technology when we don’t want to admit to our own weaknesses. In other words, we want plausible deniability. We want to be able to blame our spam filters when we failed to respond to an email that someone sent that we didn’t feel like answering. We want to blame cell phone reception when we’ve had enough of a conversation and “accidentally” hang up. The more reliable technology gets, the more we have to find new ways for blaming the technology so that we don’t have to do the socially rude thing. This is one of the reasons that LinkedIn is painful. Instead of blaming the technology, we have to blame our friends and colleagues when we don’t hear from the contacts we’re trying to reach. YUCK.

So, what about efficiency? Think about Facebook Causes. Think about how easy it is to efficiently spam everyone you know to join the Cause. Hell, the technology will spam your friends even when you don’t try. Does this actually build social capital or convince your friends to participate in that cause that you love? Probably not. Likewise, an evite is less inviting than a personalized email trying to convince you personally to come. This is also the case when it comes to trying to convince your Congresspeople of something. Thanks to email, you can efficiently spam your congresspeople with little effort. But that there is the problem – with little effort. The more efficient a means of communication is, the less it is valued. This is why politicians take personal letter (particularly written ones) more seriously than email or forms that people can quickly fill out. (Of course, if you *really* want to be taken seriously, try sending your Congresswoman a bouquet of flowers. Not only did that take effort, it actually cost something too.)

Social technologies that make things more efficient reduce the cost of action. Yet, that cost is often an important signal. We want communication to cost something because that cost signals that we value the other person, that we value them enough to spare our time and attention. Cost does not have to be about money. One of the things that I’ve found to be consistently true with teens of rich and powerful parents is that they’d give up many of the material goods in their world to actually get some time and attention from their overly scheduled parents. Time and attention are rare commodities in modern life. Spending time with someone is a valuable signal that you care.

When I talk with teens about MySpace bulletins versus comments, they consistently tell me that they value comments more than bulletins. Why? Because “it takes effort” to write a comment. Bulletins are seen as too easy and it’s not surprising that teens have employed this medium to beg their friends to spend time and write a comment on their page. Teens’ views on Facebook Apps reflect this same attitude. While they think they’re fun at first, they begin to loathe them after a while because they’re seen as spam that your friends send you. It’s simply too efficient to spam your friends, even if you can only send 10 a day.

In the physical world, architects and city planners often build inefficiencies into the system for a reason. I remember a talk by Manuel Castells where he spoke of forcing people to stand on line at regular intervals in public places, even when the activity could be made more efficient through technology. He viewed these kinds of inefficiencies as critical to the well-being of society because they provided a context for people to interact with strangers and, thus, build connections that glued the city together. This worked especially well when people could collectively complain about the people in charge – it provided a reason for social solidarity. (Think about the social solidarity built in NY when there’s a brownout or a transit strike.) Physical architects must constantly struggle with maximizing efficiency versus providing room for inefficiencies because of the social good that comes from them.

I have a sneaking suspicion that tech architects never even think about the possibility of creating inefficiencies to enhance social good, but I’m not sure. Since many of you mysterious readers are passionate about social technology, let me ask you. What examples of intentional (or unintentional) inefficiencies do you see in social tech? How do users respond to these?

musing about online social norms

Since the earliest days of Usenet and email, people have complained about how much easier it is to be mean online than offline. If you spend enough time on public forums, it’s hard not to run into mean-spirited rhetoric: defamation, hate speech, flaming, etc. The latest story of helicopter parenting turning deadly highlights how easy it is to deceive to be cruel. Discussions of using mediating technologies for the purpose of bullying often rely on arguments about how technology aids and embeds malicious acts by reducing the consequences of breaking social norms. Governments often seek to ban technologies because of mean-spirited interactions that take place.

Of course, what’s at stake is fundamentally a philosophical question, the precise one that got me kicked out of my 9th grade English classroom: is “man” basically good or evil? (I argued that man was basically evil, but apparently this was the incorrect answer and I wouldn’t back down.)

There are all sorts of forces that limit social behavior in everyday life: fear of legal consequences, fear of social consequences, fear of damage to our bodies, lack of functional capability, whether potential gains outweigh costs, etc. Our legal system takes these forces into consideration and this is where punishments like jail (or the death penalty) operate at disincentives. Likewise, we often try to regulate structures so that it is functionally impossible to commit an act that is perceived to be collectively “wrong” (legal or social). Yet, in truth, we rely primarily on the things that are essential to humanness: desire not to face physical harm and desire to fit in socially.

Mediated environment throw these forces for a loop. I can say anything I want here and you can’t punch me. At least not while you’re sitting on your computer reading this. And I have a reasonable expectation that your potential anger will dissipate before you see me again. Furthermore, this fear of bodily harm is very ephemeral – we are much worse about evaluating whether or not an act will result in _future_ bodily harm than determining if it will result in immediate harm. The lack of immediate harm is key here.

The bigger issue has to do with social consequences. I have no way of determining if you’re nodding along or scrunching your face in disgust and violent disagreement. I have to imagine your reaction as I write this (and I’m imagining the nods). I have no way of adjusting the next paragraph according to your implicit responses while reading this paragraph, both because I can’t see you and because you’re reading this in a time-shifted manner. Furthermore, unless you explicitly provide feedback (like comments), I have no real understanding that you’re out there let alone what you thought of my post. The lack of social feedback sucks, but the lack of immediate social consequences can be far more dangerous.

Impression management is a core process of human participation in social situations. I try to present myself in the way that I want to be received and based on your feedback, I adjust my presentation. This is not easily learned and teenagers often struggle with this (thus, an “identity crisis” is when one’s imagined self doesn’t mesh well with how one is perceived) but adults are by no means perfect at this. We all learn through experience which is why social interaction is crucial.

Yet, in mediated environments, impression management is stilted. There’s no implicit feedback and explicit feedback is minimal at best (“nice picture” isn’t really informative). The immediate social consequences are also not there because there’s no way of knowing if someone just walked away. As a result, social norms aren’t really enforced online and without this re-inforcement, it’s easy to break them without even knowing it.

This gets even trickier when you remember that networked publics bring together people from all sorts of environments with fundamentally different sets of social norms and expectations. Many imagine a melting pot where a new set of collective norms evolves, but because it’s hard to provide social feedback, that doesn’t happen. It’s more like a rotting salad bowl.

Now, add in the fact that people regularly seek attention (even negative attention) in public situations and that public forums notoriously draw in those who are lonely, bored, desperate, angry, depressed, and otherwise not in best form. Mix this with the lack of social feedback and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. There are few consequences for negative behaviors, but they generate a whole lot of attention.

The question remains: is this the fault of the environment? In some sense, yes because the architectural underpinnings of these environments don’t allow for social feedback or meaningful social (or bodily) consequences. This is where legal folks get into a tizzy because they think that legal consequences will solve everything. For this reason, they often argue against anonymity, viewing it as a barrier to regulating social behavior online. Unfortunately, this argument is flawed. While legal consequences certainly limit some people from some acts, they certainly do not limit everything. If they did, we wouldn’t need jails and murder would be a thing of the past. More problematically, most of what needs regulated in social environments online is not a rupture of law but a rupture of social decorum. “He’s being mean” is not something that the law really wants to involve itself with.

So then how do we fix it? Is it a matter of design? Do we need to bake in social feedback loops and consequences into the core of our technologies? If so, how?

Alternatively, is there a way to socialize people into an environment where they do “what’s right” simply because it’s right? Of course, this question extends beyond the internet. I fear that as a society, we are relying more on legal regulation and less on social regulation and I can’t work out why. But, perhaps the problem is not the internet but a general lack of collectively understood everyday norms. Older people certainly spend enough time bitching about “kids these days,” but there are all sorts of contributing factors for building and maintaining collective social norms is hard: age segregation, class segregation, homophily more broadly. We can blame overworked adults, cars, lack of public spaces, single family social units, and other such bits on contributing to homophily and the lack of collective social norms.

But here’s where I think that there’s an interesting sociological puzzle. What network structures result in strong collective norms? What forces are needed to create those kinds of social network? (This is a classic question of tolerance… we know fairly well that diverse networks have higher levels of tolerance, not surprisingly.) Given that universal unitedness isn’t really going to happen, what are the structural changes that increase norm maintenance?

As for the internet, mass media hype aside, I bet that the internet is statistically nicer than it was when I was growing up. While many public forums and community sites like Slashdot are still bogged down with crud, most people are going online to interact with people that they know. There’s only so much you can get away with when you’re going to see the person the next day. Time delay might not be ideal for social feedback, but it certainly helps.

innovative TV ads

For quite some time now, TV channels have bemoaned services like TiVo for allowing viewers to skip over ads. I think that the TV stations are barking up the wrong tree. More importantly, I think that they’re out of touch with viewers.

One of the fascinating things about teens and advertising is that they don’t mind it. In fact, ads have come to signal “free” and so when teens see ads on websites, they assume that the service will continue to be free and that creates a sense of relief. Their complaint is not that ads are there, but that they are rarely relevant let alone interesting.

TV ads are the boringist. I have to admit that I watch them profusely in hotels and airport lounges because they are so fascinatingly bad. I have to imagine that people are trying to think up new TV ads, but do they bother for anything other than the Super Bowl? We all know that there are plenty of people who tune into the Super Bowl just to watch the ads. And there are certainly ads that people lurve and fans put them on YouTube. But most of them are le awful, especially those for political candidates and Save The XYZ causes.

For a long time now, I’ve been waiting for an ad that is directed at the TiVo crowd. Forget the 30-second forward people, there are still plenty who just use the 2X fast forward button. What if an ad only made sense using TiVo’s slowed-down, frame skipping view? Wouldn’t that be a trip? Rather than bitching about viewers, why not use the medium to play with them? Make something that they *want* to watch, are humored to watch? Am I asking too much when I ask TV stations to innovate?

Maybe a politician with a sense of creativity will try out a new tactic for reaching audiences through traditional media (cuz we all know that it’s still the primary mechanism for reaching mass audiences)? OK, maybe I’m dreaming. But how fun would it be to create an ad that can be viewed at different speeds with different messages? ::giggle::

quality of Google searches?

Question: has the quality of Google search gone downhill in the last few months or is it just me? Every time i search for an event-based thing, i get crap from 2005 instead of what’s relevant now. I suspect that this is because of the blogger impact on event-type items, but it’s really annoying. It’s also annoying that they’ve stopped correcting my atrocious spelling. I mean, it’s all fine and well that lots of people in the blogosphere can’t spell in exactly the same way that i can’t spell, but the #1 type of search i do everyday is spell check. I throw something god-awful like Cziskentmihalyi into the engine knowing that it’ll return Csikszentmihalyi. This still works quite well for names but it’s stopped working for lots of regular words that i just can’t spell to save my life. How pathetic is it that i’ve started opening up Word for the little red squigglies instead of relying on search? Or maybe both practices are weird…

I’m especially irked that when i search for addresses, they almost never come up. This evening, i searched for “1457 Third Street Promenade.” No dice. I added Santa Monica, CA. No dice. I decided to see if Google Maps would find the address and to my shock, it couldn’t find anything and kept giving me just Third Street generically. I went to Yahoo! Maps (which i prefer in old-skool mode anyhow, but hate typing in addresses to as i’ve noted before) and voila, that worked. I still desperately miss the days when addresses just worked in Google. I can’t believe how many times a day i shove addresses into the searchbar.

Maybe i can convince myself to like the Yahoo! UI now that Google has even further screwed theirs up by cluttering the left-hand side. But i still can’t decide… am i just being old and crotchety about change or has Google’s search actually gotten atrocious?

Grr.. or maybe i shouldn’t switch because Yahoo! wants to give me a support group for crotchedy people rather than tell me that the real spelling is crotchety. At least Google tells me that crotchedy is urban slang, making me feel a bit less crotchety.