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- My book. Let me Amazon show you it. (Thu, 28 Feb 2008 14:30:30 -0800)
I’m delighted to say that online bookstores are shipping copies of Here Comes Everybody today, and that it has gotten several terrific notices in the blogosphere: Cory Doctorow:Clay’s book makes sense of the way that groups are using the Internet. Really good sense. In a treatise that spans all manner of social activity from vigilantism to terrorism, from Flickr to Howard Dean, from blogs to newspapers, Clay unpicks what has made some “social” Internet media into something utterly transformative, while other attempts have fizzled or fallen to griefers and vandals. Clay picks perfect anecdotes to vividly illustrate his points, then shows the larger truth behind them. Russell Davies: Here Comes Everybody goes beyond wild-eyed webby boosterism and points out what seems to be different about web-based communities and organisation and why it’s different; the good and the bad. With useful and interesting examples, good stories and sticky theories. Very good stuff. Eric Nehrlich: These newly possible activities are moving us towards the collapse of social structures created by technology limitations. Shirky compares this process to how the invention of the printing press impacted scribes. Suddenly, their expertise in reading and writing went from essential to meaningless. Shirky suggests that those associated with controlling the means to media production are headed for a similar fall. Philip Young: Shirky has a piercingly sharp eye for the spotting the illuminating case studies - some familiar, some new - and using them to energise wider themes. His basic thesis is simple: “Everywhere you look groups of people are coming together to share with one another, work together, take some kind of public action.” The difference is that today, unlike even ten years ago, technological change means such groups can be form and act in new and powerful ways. Drawing on a wide range of examples Shirky teases out remarkable contrasts with what has been the expected logic, and shows quite how quickly the dynamics of reputation and relationships have changed.
- My book. Let me show you it. (Thu, 07 Feb 2008 09:43:57 -0800)
I’ve written a book, called Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, which is coming out in a month. It’s coming out first in the US and UK (and in translation later this year in Holland, Portugal and Brazil, Korea, and China.) Here Comes Everybody is about why new social tools matter for society. It is a non-techie book for the general reader (the letters TCP IP appear nowhere in that order). It is also post-utopian (I assume that the coming changes are both good and bad) and written from the point of view I have adopted from my students, namely that the internet is now boring, and the key question is what we are going to do with it. One of the great frustrations of writing a book as opposed to blogging is seeing a new story that would have been a perfect illustration, or deepened an argument, and not being able to add it. To remedy that, I’ve just launched a new blog, at HereComesEverybody.org, to continue writing about the effects of social tools. Wow. What a great response — we’ve given out all the copies we can, but many thanks for all the interest. Also, I’ve convinced the good folks at Penguin Press to let me give a few review copies away to people in the kinds of communities the book is about. I’ve got half a dozen copies to give to anyone reading this, with the only quid pro quo being that you blog your reactions to it, good bad or indifferent, some time in the next month or so. Drop me a line if you would like a review copy — email@example.com.
- It's Live! New JCMC on Social Network Sites (Mon, 12 Nov 2007 21:24:39 -0800)
It gives me unquantifiable amounts of joy to announce that the JCMC special theme issue on “Social Network Sites” is now completely birthed. It was a long and intense labor, but all eight newborn articles are doing just fine and the new mommies are as proud as could be. So please, join us in our celebration by heading on over to the Journal for Computer-Mediated Communication and snuggling up to an article or two. The more you love them, the more they’ll prosper! JCMC Special Theme Issue on “Social Network Sites” Guest Editors: danah boyd and Nicole Ellison http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol13/issue1/ “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship” by danah boyd and Nicole Ellison “Signals in Social Supernets” by Judith Donath “Social Network Profiles as Taste Performances” by Hugo Liu “Whose Space? Differences Among Users and Non-Users of Social Network Sites” by Eszter Hargittai “Cying for Me, Cying for Us: Relational Dialectics in a Korean Social Network Site” by Kyung-Hee Kim and Haejin Yun “Public Discourse, Community Concerns, and Civic Engagement: Exploring Black Social Networking Traditions on BlackPlanet.com” by Dara Byrne “Mobile Social Networks and Social Practice: A Case Study of Dodgeball” by Lee Humphreys “Publicly Private and Privately Public: Social Networking on YouTube” by Patricia Lange Please feel free to pass this announcement on to anyone you think might find value from this special issue.
- Race/ethnicity and parent education differences in usage of Facebook and MySpace (Sat, 03 Nov 2007 18:20:24 -0700)
In June, I wrote a controversial blog essay about how U.S. teens appeared to be self-dividing by class on MySpace and Facebook during the 2006-2007 school year. This piece got me into loads of trouble for all sorts of reasons, forcing me to respond to some of the most intense critiques. While what I was observing went beyond what could be quantitatively measured, certain aspects of it could be measured. To my absolute delight, Eszter Hargittai (professor at Northwestern) had collected data to measure certain aspects of the divide that I was trying to articulate. Not surprising (to me at least), what she was seeing lined up completely with what I was seeing on the ground. Her latest article “Whose Space? Differences Among Users and Non-Users of Social Network Sites” (published as a part of Nicole Ellison and my JCMC special issue on social network sites) suggests that Facebook and MySpace usage are divided by race/ethnicity and parent education (two common measures of “class” in the U.S.). Her findings are based on a survey of 1060 first year students at the diverse University of Illinois-Chicago campus during February and March of 2007. For more details on her methodology, see her methods section. While over 99% of the students had heard of both Facebook and MySpace, 79% use Facebook and 55% use MySpace. The story looks a bit different when you break it down by race/ethnicity and parent education: While Eszter is not able to measure the other aspects of lifestyle that I was trying to describe that differentiate usage, she is able to show that Facebook and MySpace usage differs by race/ethnicity and parent education. These substitutes for “class” can be contested, but what is important here is that there is genuinely differences in usage patterns, even with consistent familiarity. People are segmenting themselves in networked publics and this links to the ways in which they are segmented in everyday life. Hopefully Eszter’s article helps those who can’t read qualitative data understand that what I was observing is real and measurable. (We are still waiting for all of the JCMC articles from our special issue to be live on the site. Fore more information on this special issue, please see the Introduction that Nicole and I wrote: Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship.) Discussion: Apophenia
- User-generated neologism: "Indigenous content" (Fri, 03 Aug 2007 11:57:34 -0700)
My class in the fall is called “User-generated”, and it looks, among other things, at the tension surrounding that phrase, and in particular its existence as an external and anxiety-ridden label, by traditional media companies, for the way that advertising can be put next to material not created by Trained Professionals?. All right-thinking individuals (by which I basically mean Anil Dash and Heather Champ) hate that phrase. Now my friend Kio Stark* has come up with what seems like a nice, and more anthropologically correct version: Indigenous Content (which is to say “Created by the natives for themselves.”) * ObKio: Best. Tagset. Evar.
- history of social network sites (a work-in-progress) (Thu, 02 Aug 2007 13:58:22 -0700)
As many of you know, Nicole Ellison and I are guest editing a special issue of JCMC. As a part of this issue, we are writing an introduction that will include a description of social network sites, a brief history of them, a literature review, a description of the works in this issue, and a discussion of future research. We have decided to put a draft of our history section up to solicit feedback from those of you who know this space well. It is a work-in-progress so please bear with us. But if you have suggestions, shout out. history of social network sites (a work-in-progress) In particular, we want to know: 1) Are we reporting anything inaccurately? 2) What are we missing?
- New Freedom Destroys Old Culture: A response to Nick Carr (Wed, 01 Aug 2007 10:54:35 -0700)
I have never understood Nick Carr’s objections to the cultural effects of the internet. He’s much too smart to lump in with nay-sayers like Keen, and when he talks about the effects of the net on business, he sounds more optimistic, even factoring in the wrenching transition, so why aren’t the cultural effects similar cause for optimism, even accepting the wrenching transition in those domains as well? I think I finally got understood the dichotomy between his reading of business and culture after reading Long Player, his piece on metadata and what he calls “the myth of liberation”, a post spurred in turn by David Weinberger’s Everything Is Miscellaneous. Carr discusses the ways in which the long-playing album was both conceived of and executed as an aesthetic unit, its length determined by a desire to hold most of the classical canon on a single record, and its possibilities exploited by musicians who created for the form — who created albums, in other words, rather than mere bags of songs. He illustrates this with an exegesis of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, showing how the overall construction makes that album itself a work of art. Carr uses this point to take on what he calls the myth of liberation: “This mythology is founded on a sweeping historical revisionism that conjures up an imaginary predigital world - a world of profound physical and economic constraints - from which the web is now liberating us.” Carr observes, correctly, that the LP was what it was in part for aesthetic reasons, and the album, as a unit, became what it became in the hands of people who knew how to use it. That is not, however, the neat story Carr wants to it be, and the messiness of the rest of the story is key, I think, to the anxiety about the effects on culture, his and others. The LP was an aesthetic unit, but one designed within strong technical constraints. When Edward Wallerstein of Columbia Records was trying to figure out how long the long-playing format should be, he settled on 17 minutes a side as something that would “…enable about 90% of all classical music to be put on two sides of a record.” But why only 90%? Because 100% would be impossible — the rest of the canon was too long for the technology of the day. And why should you have to flip the record in the middle? Why not have it play straight through? Impossible again. Contra Carr, in other words, the pre-digital world was a world of profound physical and economic constraints. The LP could hold 34 minutes of music, which was a bigger number of minutes than some possibilities (33 possibilities, to be precise), but smaller than an infinite number of others. The album as a form provided modest freedom embedded in serious constraints, and the people who worked well with the form accepted those constraints as a way of getting at those freedoms. And now the constraints are gone; there is no necessary link between an amount of music and its playback vehicle. And what Carr dislikes, I think, is evidence that the freedoms of the album were only as valuable as they were in the context of the constraints. If Exile on Main Street was as good an idea as he thinks it was, it would survive the removal of those constraints. And it hasn’t. Here is the iTunes snapshot of Exile, sorted by popularity: While we can’t get absolute numbers from this, we can get relative ones — many more people want to listen to Tumbling Dice or Happy than Ventilator Blues or Turd on the Run, even though iTunes makes it cheaper per song to buy the whole album. Even with a financial inducement to preserve the album form, the users still say no thanks. The only way to support the view that Exile is best listened to as an album, in other words, is to dismiss the actual preferences of most of the people who like the Rolling Stones. Carr sets about this task with gusto: Who would unbundle Exile on Main Street or Blonde on Blonde or Tonight’s the Night - or, for that matter, Dirty Mind or Youth and Young Manhood or (Come On Feel the) Illinoise? Only a fool would. Only a fool. If you are one of those people who has, say, Happy on your iPod (as I do), then you are a fool (though you have lots of company). And of course this foolishness extends to the recording industry, and to the Stones themselves, who went and put Tumbling Dice on a Greatest Hits collection. (One can only imagine how Carr feels about Greatest Hits collections.) I think Weinberger’s got it right about liberation, even taking at face value the cartoonish version Carr offers. Prior to unlimited perfect copyability, media was defined by profound physical and economic constraints, and now it’s not. Fewer constraints and better matching of supply and demand are good for business, because business is not concerned with historical continuity. Fewer constraints and better matching of supply and demand are bad for current culture, because culture continually mistakes current exigencies for eternal verities. This isn’t just Carr of course. As people come to realize that freedom destroys old forms just as surely as it creates new ones, the lament for the long-lost present is going up everywhere. As another example, Sven Birkerts, the literary critic, has a post in the Boston Globe, Lost in the blogosphere, that is almost indescribably self-involved. His two complaints are that newspapers are reducing the space allotted to literary criticism, and too many people on the Web are writing about books. In other words, literary criticism, as practiced during Birkerts’ lifetime, was just right, and having either fewer or more writers are both lamentable situations. In order that the “Life was better when I was younger” flavor of his complaint not become too obvious, Birkerts frames the changing landscape not as a personal annoyance but as A Threat To Culture Itself. As he puts it “…what we have been calling “culture” at least since the Enlightenment — is the emergent maturity that constrains unbounded freedom in the interest of mattering.” This is silly. The constraints of print were not a product of “emergent maturity.” They were accidents of physical production. Newspapers published book reviews because their customers read books and because publishers took out ads, the same reason they published pieces about cars or food or vacations. Some newspapers hired critics because they could afford to, others didn’t because they couldn’t. Ordinary citizens didn’t write about books in a global medium because no such medium existed. None of this was an attempt to “constrain unbounded freedom” because there was no such freedom to constrain; it was just how things were back then. Genres are always created in part by limitations. Albums are as long as they are because that Wallerstein picked a length his engineers could deliver. Novels are as long as they are because Aldus Manutius’s italic letters and octavo bookbinding could hold about that many words. The album is already a marginal form, and the novel will probably become one in the next fifty years, but that also happened to the sonnet and the madrigal. I’m old enough to remember the dwindling world, but it never meant enough to me to make me a nostalgist. In my students’ work I see hints of a culture that takes both the new freedoms and the new constraints for granted, but the fullest expression of that world will probably come after I’m dead. But despite living in transitional times, I’m not willing to pretend that the erosion of my worldview is a crisis for culture itself. It’s just how things are right now. Carr fails to note that the LP was created for classical music, but used by rock and roll bands. Creators work within whatever constraints exist at the time they are creating, and when the old constraints give way, new forms arise while old ones dwindle. Some work from the older forms will survive — Shakespeare’s 116th sonnet remains a masterwork — while other work will wane — Exile as an album-length experience is a fading memory. This kind of transition isn’t a threat to Culture Itself, or even much of a tragedy, and we should resist attempts to preserve old constraints in order to defend old forms.
- responding to critiques of my essay on class (Wed, 25 Jul 2007 23:05:42 -0700)
One month ago, I put out a blog essay that took on a life of its own. This essay addressed one of America’s most taboo topics: class. Due to personal circumstances, I wasn’t online as things spun further and further out of control and I had neither the time nor the emotional energy to address all of the astounding misinterpretations that I saw as a game of digital telephone took hold. I’ve browsed the hundreds of emails, thousands of blog posts, and thousands of comments across the web. I’m in awe of the amount of time and energy people put into thinking through and critiquing my essay. In the process, I’ve also realized that I was not always so effective at communicating what I wanted to communicate. To clarify some issues, I decided to put together a long response that addresses a variety of different issues. Responding to Responses to: “Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace” Please let me know if this does or does not clarify the concerns that you’ve raised. (Comments on Apophenia)
- Tagmashes from LibraryThing (Wed, 25 Jul 2007 12:14:36 -0700)
im Spalding at LibraryThing has introduced a new wrinkle in the tagosphere…and wrinkles are welcome because they pucker space in semantically interesting ways. (Block that metaphor!) At LibraryThing, people list their books. And, of course, we tag ‘em up good. For example, Freakonomics has 993 unique tags (ignoring case differences), and 8,760 total tags. Now, tags are of course useful. But so are subject headings. So, Tim has come up with a clever way of deriving subject headings bottom up. He’s introduced “tagmashes,” which are (in essence) searches on two or more tags. So, you could ask to see all the books tagged “france” and “wwii.” But the fact that you’re asking for that particular conjunction of tags indicates that those tags go together, at least in your mind and at least at this moment. Library turns that tagmash into a page with a persistent URL. The page presents a de-duped list of the results, ordered by interestinginess, and with other tagmashes suggested, all based on the magic of statistics. Over time, a large, relatively flat set of subject headings may emerge, which, subject to further analysis, could get clumpier and clumpier with meaning. You may be asking yourself how this differs from saved searches. I asked Tim. He explained that while the system does a search when you ask for a new tagmash, it presents the tagmash as if it were a topic, not a search. For one thing, lists of search results generally don’t have persistent URLs. More important, to the user, tagmash pages feel like topic pages, not search results pages. And you may also be asking yourself how this differs from a folksonomy. While I’d want to count it as a folksonomic technique, in a traditional folksonomy (oooh, I hope I’m the first to use that phrase!), a computer can notice which terms are used most often, and might even notice some of the relationships among the terms. With tagmashes, the info that this tag is related to that one is gleaned from the fact that a human said that they were related. LibraryThing keeps innovating this way. It’s definitely a site to watch.
- Spolsky on Blog Comments: Scale matters (Fri, 20 Jul 2007 10:02:29 -0700)
Joel Spolsky approvingly quotes Dave Winer on the subject of blog-comments: The cool thing about blogs is that while they may be quiet, and it may be hard to find what you’re looking for, at least you can say what you think without being shouted down. This makes it possible for unpopular ideas to be expressed. And if you know history, the most important ideas often are the unpopular ones…. That’s what’s important about blogs, not that people can comment on your ideas. As long as they can start their own blog, there will be no shortage of places to comment. Joel then adds his own observations: When a blog allows comments right below the writer’s post, what you get is a bunch of interesting ideas, carefully constructed, followed by a long spew of noise, filth, and anonymous rubbish that nobody … nobody … would say out loud if they had to take ownership of their words. This can be true, all true, as any casual read of blog comments can attest. BoingBoing turned off their comments years ago, because they’d long since passed the scale where polite conversation was possible. The Tragedy of the Conversational Commons becomes too persistently tempting when an audience gorws large. At BoingBoing scale, John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory cannot be repealed. But the uselessness of comments it is not the universal truth that Dave or (fixed, per Dave’s comment below) Joel makes it out to be, for two reasons. First, posting and conversation are different kinds of things — same keyboard, same text box, same web page, different modes of expression. Second, the sites that suffer most from anonymous postings and drivel are the ones operating at large scale. If you are operating below that scale, comments can be quite good, in a way not replicable in any “everyone post to their own blog”. To take but three recent examples, take a look at the comments on my post on Michael Gorman, on danah’s post at Apophenia on fame, narcissism and MySpace and on Kieran Healy’s biological thought experiment on Crooked Timber. Those three threads contain a hundred or so comments, including some distinctly low-signal bouquets and brickbats. But there is also spirited disputation and emendation, alternate points of view, linky goodness, and a conversational sharpening of the argument on all sides, in a way that doesn’t happen blog to blog. This, I think, is the missing element in Dave and Joel’s points — two blog posts do not make a conversation. The conversation that can be attached to a post is different in style and content, and in intent and effect, than the post itself. I have long thought that the ‘freedom of speech means no filtering’ argument is dumb where blogs are concerned — it is the blogger’s space, and he or she should feel free to delete, disemvowel, or otherwise dispose of material, for any reason, or no reason. But we’ve long since passed the point where what happens on a blog is mainly influenced by what the software does — the question to ask about comments is not whether they are available, but how a community uses them. The value in in blogs as communities of practice is considerable, and its a mistake to write off comment threads on those kinds of blogs just because, in other environments, comments are lame.
- "The internet's output is data, but its product is freedom" (Tue, 10 Jul 2007 09:07:05 -0700)
I said that in Andrew Keen: Rescuing ‘Luddite’ from the Luddites, to which Phil, one of the commenters, replied There are assertions of verifiable fact and then there are invocations of shared values. Don’t mix them up. I meant this as an assertion of fact, but re-reading it after Tom’s feedback, it comes off as simple flag-waving, since I’d compressed the technical part of the argument out of existence. So here it is again, in slightly longer form: The internet’s essential operation is to encode and transmit data from sender to receiver. In 1969, this was not a new capability; we’d had networks that did this in since the telegraph, at the day of the internet’s launch, we had a phone network that was nearly a hundred years old, alongside more specialized networks for things like telexes and wire-services for photographs. Thus the basics of what the internet did (and does) isn’t enough to explain its spread; what is it for has to be accounted for by looking at the difference between it and the other data-transfer networks of the day. The principal difference between older networks and the internet (ARPAnet, at its birth) is the end-to-end principle, which says, roughly, “The best way to design a network is to allow the sender and receiver to decide what the data means, without asking the intervening network to interpret the data.” The original expression of this idea is from the Saltzer and Clark paper End-to-End Arguments in System Design; the same argument is explained in other terms in Isenberg’s Stupid Network and Searls and Weinberger’s World of Ends. What the internet is for, in other words, what made it worth adopting in a world already well provisioned with other networks, was that the sender and receiver didn’t have to ask for either help or permission before inventing a new kind of message. The core virtue of the internet was a huge increase in the technical freedom of all of its participating nodes, a freedom that has been translated into productive and intellectual freedoms for its users. As Scott Bradner put it, the Internet means you don?t have to convince anyone else that something is a good idea before trying it. The upshot is that the internet’s output is data, but its product is freedom.
- Andrew Keen: Rescuing 'Luddite' from the Luddites (Mon, 09 Jul 2007 11:32:41 -0700)
Last week, while in a conversation with Andrew Keen on the radio show To The Point, he suggested that he was not opposed to the technology of the internet, but rather to how it was being used. This reminded me of Michael Gorman’s insistence that digital tools are fine, so long as they are shaped to replicate the social (and particularly academic) institutions that have grown up around paper. There is a similar strand in these two arguments, namely that technology is one thing, but the way it is used is another, and that the two can and should be separated. I think this view is in the main wrong, even Luddite, but to make such an accusation requires a definition of Luddite considerably more grounded than ‘anti-technology’ (a vacuous notion — no one who wears shoes can reasonably be called ‘anti-technology.’) Both Keen and Gorman have said they are not opposed to digital technology. I believe them when they say this, but I still think their views are Luddite, by historical analogy with the real Luddite movement of the early 1800s. What follows is a long detour into the Luddite rebellion, followed by a reply to Keen about the inseparability of the internet from its basic effects. Infernal Machines The historical record is relatively clear. In March of 1811, a group of weavers in Nottinghamshire began destroying mechanical looms. This was not the first such riot — in the late 1700s, when Parliament refused to guarantee the weaver’s control of supply of woven goods, workers in Nottingham destroyed looms as well. The Luddite rebellion, though, was unusual for several reasons: its breadth and sustained character, taking place in many industrializing towns at once; its having a nominal leader, going by the name Ned Ludd, General Ludd, or King Ludd (the pseudonym itself a reference to an apocryphal figure from an earlier loom-breaking riot in the late 1700s); and its written documentation of grievances and rationale. The rebellion, which lasted two years, was ultimately put down by force, and was over in 1813. Over the last two decades, several historians have re-examined the record of the Luddite movement, and have attempted to replace the simplistic view of Luddites as being opposed to technological change with a more nuanced accounting of their motivations and actions. The common thread of the analysis is that the Luddites didn’t object to mechanized wide-frame looms per se, they objected to the price collapse of woven goods caused by the way industrialists were using the looms. Though the target of the Luddite attacks were the looms themselves, their concerns and goals were not about technology but about economics. I believe that the nuanced view is wrong, and that the simpler view of Luddites as counter-revolutionaries is in fact the correct one. The romantic view of Luddites as industrial-age Robin Hoods, concerned not to halt progress but to embrace justice, runs aground on both the written record, in which the Luddites outline a program that is against any technology that increases productivity, and on their actions, which were not anti-capitalist but anti-consumer. It also assumes that there was some coherent distinction between technological and economic effects of the looms; there was none. A Technology is For Whatever Happens When You Use It The idea that the Luddites were targeting economic rather than technological change is a category fallacy, where the use of two discrete labels (technology and economics, in this case) are wrongly thought to demonstrate two discrete aspects of the thing labeled (here wide-frame looms.) This separation does not exist in this case; the technological effects of the looms were economic. This is because, at the moment of its arrival, what a technology does and what it is for are different. What any given technology does is fairly obvious: rifles fire bullets, pencils make marks, looms weave cloth, and so on. What a technology is for, on the other hand, what leads people to adopt it, is whatever new thing becomes possible on the day of its arrival. The Winchester repeating rifle was not for firing bullets — that capability already existed. It was for decreasing the wait between bullets. Similarly, pencils were not for writing but for portability, and so on. And the wide-frame looms, target of the Luddite’s destructive forays? What were they for? They weren’t for making cloth — humankind was making cloth long before looms arrived. They weren’t for making better cloth — in 1811, industrial cloth was inferior to cloth spun by the weavers. Mechanical looms were for making cheap cloth, lots and lots of cheap cloth. The output of a mechanical loom was cloth, but the product of such a loom was savings. The wide-frame loom was a cost-lowering machine, and as such, it threatened the old inefficiencies on which the Luddite’s revenues depended. Their revolt had the goal of preventing those savings from being passed along to the customer. One of their demands was that Parliament outlaw “all Machinery hurtful to Commonality” — all machines that worked efficiently enough to lower prices. Perhaps more tellingly, and against recent fables of Luddism as a principled anti-capitalist movement, they refrained from breaking the looms of industrial weavers who didn’t lower their prices. What the Luddites were rioting in favor of was price gouging; they didn’t care how much a wide-frame loom might save in production costs, so long as none of those savings were passed on to their fellow citizens. Their common cause was not with citizens and against industrialists, it was against citizens and with those industrialists who joined them in a cartel. The effect of their campaign, had it succeeded, would been to have raise, rather than lower, the profits of the wide-frame operators, while producing no benefit for those consumers who used cloth in their daily lives, which is to say the entire population of England. (Tellingly, none of the “Robin Hood” versions of Luddite history make any mention of the effect of high prices on the buyers of cloth, just on the sellers.) Back to Keen A Luddite argument is one in which some broadly useful technology is opposed on the grounds that it will discomfit the people who benefit from the inefficiency the technology destroys. An argument is especially Luddite if the discomfort of the newly challenged professionals is presented as a general social crisis, rather than as trouble for a special interest. (“How will we know what to listen to without record store clerks!”) When the music industry suggests that the prices of music should continue to be inflated, to preserve the industry as we have known it, that is a Luddite argument, as is the suggestion that Google pay reparations to newspapers or the phone company’s opposition to VoIP undermining their ability to profit from older ways of making phone calls. This is what makes Keen’s argument a Luddite one — he doesn’t oppose all uses of technology, just ones that destroy older ways of doing things. In his view, the internet does not need to undermine the primacy of the copy as the anchor for both filtering and profitability. But Keen is wrong. What the internet does is move data from point A to B, but what it is for is empowerment. Using the internet without putting new capabilities into the hands of its users (who are, by definition, amateurs in most things they can now do) would be like using a mechanical loom and not lowering the cost of buying a coat — possible, but utterly beside the point. The internet’s output is data, but its product is freedom, lots and lots of freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association, the freedom of an unprecedented number of people to say absolutely anything they like at any time, with the reasonable expectation that those utterances will be globally available, broadly discoverable at no cost, and preserved for far longer than most utterances are, and possibly forever. Keen is right in understanding that this massive supply-side shock to freedom will destabilize and in some cases destroy a number of older social institutions. He is wrong in believing that there is some third way — lets deploy the internet, but not use it to increase the freedom of amateurs to do as they like. It is possible to want a society in which new technology doesn’t demolish traditional ways of doing things. It is not possible to hold this view without being a Luddite, however. That view — incumbents should wield veto-power over adoption of tools they dislike, no matter the positive effects for the citizenry — is the core of Luddism, then and now.
- knowledge access as a public good (Wed, 27 Jun 2007 13:32:02 -0700)
Over at the Britannica Blog, Michael Gorman (the former president of the American Library Association) wrote a series of posts concerning web2.0. In short, he’s against it and thinks everything to do with web2.0 and Wikipedia is bad bad bad. A handful of us were given access to the posts before they were posted and asked to craft responses. The respondents are scholars and thinkers and writers of all stripes (including my dear friend and fellow M2M blogger Clay Shirky). Because I addressed all of his arguments at once, my piece was held to be released in the final week of the public discussion. And that time is now. So enjoy! Michael Gorman’s commentary My response (Comments at Apophenia)Below is a copy of the response I wrote over at Britannica: As a child, I believed that all educated people were wise. In particular, I placed educators and authorities on a high pedestal and I entered the academy both to seek their wisdom and to become one of them. Unfortunately, eleven years of higher education has taught me that parts of the academy is rife with many of the same problems that plague society as a whole: greed, self-absorbtion, addiction to power, and an overwhelming desire to be validated, praised, and rewarded. As Dr. Gorman laments the ills of contemporary society, I find myself nodding along. Doing ethnographic work in the United States often leaves me feeling disillusioned and numb. It breaks my heart every time a teenager tells me that s/he is more talented than Sanjaya and thus is guaranteed a slot on the next ?American Idol.? The pervasive view that American society is a meritocracy makes me want to scream, but I fear as though my screams fall on deaf ears. To cope with my frustration, I often return to my bubble. My friends all seem to come from Lake Wobegon where ?the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all of the children are above average.? I have consciously surrounded myself with people who think like me, share my values, and are generally quite overeducated. I feel very privileged to live in such an environment, but like all intellectuals who were educated in the era of identity politics, I am regularly racked with guilt over said privilege. The Internet is a funny thing, especially now that those online are not just the connected elite. It mirrors and magnifies the offline world - all of the good, bad, and ugly. I don?t need to travel to Idaho to face neo-Nazis. I don?t need to go to Colorado Springs to hear religious views that contradict my worldivew. And I don?t need to go to Capitol Hill to witness the costs of power for power?s sake. If I am willing to look, there are places on the Internet that will expose me to every view on this planet, even those that I?d prefer to pretend did not exist. Most of the privileged people that I know prefer to live like ostriches, ignoring the realities of everyday life in order to sustain their privileges. I am trying not to be that person, although I find it to be a challenge. In the 16th century, Sir Francis Bacon famously wrote that ?knowledge is power.? Not surprisingly, institutions that profit off of knowledge trade in power. In an era of capitalism, this equation often gets tainted by questions of profitability. Books are not published simply because they contain valued and valid information; they are published if and when the publisher can profit off of the sale of those books. Paris Hilton stands a far better chance of getting a publishing deal than most astute and thought-provoking academics. Even a higher education is becoming more inaccessible to more people at a time when a college degree is necessary to work in a cafe. $140,000 for a college education is a scary proposition, even if you want to enter the ratrace of the white collar mega-corporations where you expect to make a decent salary. Amidst this environment, it frustrates me to hear librarians speak about information dissemination while they create digital firewalls that lock people out of accessing knowledge unless they have the right academic credentials. I entered the academy because I believe in knowledge production and dissemination. I am a hopeless Marxist. I want to equal the playing field; I want to help people gain access to information in the hopes that they can create knowledge that is valuable for everyone. I have lost faith in traditional organizations leading the way to mass access and am thus always on the lookout for innovative models to produce and distribute knowledge. Unlike Dr. Gorman, Wikipedia brings me great joy. I see it as a fantastic example of how knowledge can be distributed outside of elite institutions. I have watched stubs of articles turn into rich homes for information about all sorts of subjects. What I like most about Wikipedia is the self-recognition that it is always a work-in- progress. The encyclopedia that I had as a kid was a hand-me-down; it stated that one day we would go to the moon. Today, curious poor youth have access to information in an unprecedented way. It may not be perfect, but it is far better than a privilege-only model of access. Knowledge is not static, but traditional publishing models assume that it can be captured and frozen for consumption. What does that teach children about knowledge? Captured knowledge makes sense when the only opportunity for dissemination is through distributing physical artifacts, but this is no longer the case. Now that we can get information to people faster and with greater barriers, why should we support the erection of barriers? In middle school, I was sent to the principal?s office for correcting a teacher?s math. The issue was not whether or not I was correct - I was; I was ejected from class for having the gall to challenge authority. Would Galileo have been allowed to write an encyclopedia article? The ?authorities? of his day rejected his scientific claims. History has many examples of how the vetting process has failed us. Imagine all of the knowledge that was produced that was more successfully suppressed by authorities. In the era of the Internet, gatekeepers have less power. I don?t think that this is always a bad thing. Like paper, the Internet is a medium. People express a lot of crap through both mediums. Yet, should we denounce paper as inherently flawed? The Internet - and Wikipedia - change the rules for distribution and production. It means that those with knowledge do not have to retreat to the ivory towers to share what they know. It means that individuals who know something can easily share it, even when they are not formally declared as experts. It means that those with editing skills can help the information become accessible, even if they only edit occasionally. It means that multi-lingual individuals can help get information to people who speak languages that publishers do not consider worth their time. It means that anyone with an Internet connection can get access to information traditionally locked behind the gates of institutions (and currently locked in digital vaults). Don?t get me wrong - Wikipedia is not perfect. But why do purported experts spend so much time arguing against it rather than helping make it a better resource? It is free! It is accessible! Is it really worth that much prestige to write an encyclopedia article instead of writing a Wikipedia entry? While there are certainly errors there, imagine what would happen if all of those who view themselves as experts took the time to make certain that the greatest and most broad-reaching resource was as accurate as possible. I believe that academics are not just the producers of knowledge - they are also teachers. As teachers, we have an ethical responsibility to help distribute knowledge. We have a responsibility to help not just the 30 people in our classroom, but the millions of people globally who will never have the opportunity to sit in one of our classes. The Internet gives us the tool to do this. Why are we throwing this opportunity away? Like Dr. Gorman, I don?t believe that all crowds are inherently wise. But I also don?t believe that all authorities are inherently wise. Especially not when they are vying for tenure. Why are we telling our students not to use Wikipedia rather than educating them about how Wikipedia works? Sitting in front of us is an ideal opportunity to talk about how knowledge is produced, how information is disseminated, how ideas are shared. Imagine if we taught the ?history? feature so that students would have the ability to track how a Wikipedia entry is produced and assess for themselves what the authority of the author is. You can?t do this with an encyclopedia. Imagine if we taught students how to fact check claims in Wikipedia and, better yet, to add valuable sources to a Wikipedia entry so that their work becomes part of the public good. Herein lies a missing piece in Dr. Gorman?s puzzle. The society that he laments has lost faith in the public good. Elitism and greed have gotten in the way. By upholding the values of the elite, Dr. Gorman is perpetuating views that are destroying efforts to make knowledge a public good. Wikipedia is a public-good project. It is the belief that division of labor has value and that everyone has something to contribute, if only a spelling correction. It is the belief that all people have the inalienable right to knowledge, not just those who have academic chairs. It is the belief that the powerful have no right to hoard the knowledge. And it is the belief that people can and should collectively help others gain access to information and knowledge. Personally, I hold these truths to be self-evident, and I?d rather see us put in the effort to make Wikipedia an astounding resource that can be used by all people than to try to dismantle it simply because it means change. (Comments at Apophenia)
- viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace (Sun, 24 Jun 2007 16:43:30 -0700)
Over the last six months, i’ve noticed an increasing number of press articles about how high school teens are leaving MySpace for Facebook. That’s only partially true. There is indeed a change taking place, but it’s not a shift so much as a fragmentation. Until recently, American teenagers were flocking to MySpace. The picture is now being blurred. Some teens are flocking to MySpace. And some teens are flocking to Facebook. Which go where gets kinda sticky, because it seems to primarily have to do with socio-economic class. I’ve been trying to figure out how to articulate this division for months. I have not yet succeeded. So, instead, I decided to write a blog essay addressing what I’m seeing. I suspect that this will be received with criticism, but my hope is that the readers who encounter this essay might be able to help me think through this. In other words, I want feedback on this piece. Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace What I lay out in this essay is rather disconcerting. Hegemonic American teens (i.e. middle/upper class, college bound teens from upwards mobile or well off families) are all on or switching to Facebook. Marginalized teens, teens from poorer or less educated backgrounds, subculturally-identified teens, and other non-hegemonic teens continue to be drawn to MySpace. A class division has emerged and it is playing out in the aesthetics, the kinds of advertising, and the policy decisions being made. Please check out this essay and share your thoughts in the comments on Apophenia.
- Gorman, redux: The Siren Song of the Internet (Wed, 20 Jun 2007 09:21:08 -0700)
Michael Gorman has his next post up at the Britannica blog: The Siren Song of the Internet. My reply is also up, and posted below. The themes of the historical lessons of Luddism are also being discussed in the comments to last week’s Gorman response, Old Revolutions Good, New Revolutions Bad Siren Song of the Internet contains a curious omission and a basic misunderstanding. The omission is part of his defense of the Luddites; the misunderstanding is about the value of paper and the nature of e-books. The omission comes early: Gorman cavils at being called a Luddite, though he then embraces the label, suggesting that they “…had legitimate grievances and that their lives were adversely affected by the mechanization that led to the Industrial Revolution.” No one using the term Luddite disputes the effects on pre-industrial weavers. This is the general case — any technology that fixes a problem (in this case the high cost of homespun goods) threatens the people who profit from the previous inefficiency. However, Gorman omits mentioning the Luddite response: an attempt to halt the spread of mechanical looms which, though beneficial to the general populace, threatened the livelihoods of King Ludd’s band. By labeling the Luddite program legitimate, Gorman seems to be suggesting that incumbents are right to expect veto power over technological change. Here his stand in favor of printed matter is inconsistent, since printing was itself enormously disruptive, and many people wanted veto power over its spread as well. Indeed, one of the great Luddites of history (if we can apply the label anachronistically) was Johannes Trithemius, who argued in the late 1400s that the printing revolution be contained, in order to shield scribes from adverse effects. This is the same argument Gorman is making, in defense of the very tools Trithemius opposed. His attempt to rescue Luddism looks less like a principled stand than special pleading: the printing press was good, no matter happened to the scribes, but let’s not let that sort of thing happen to my tribe. Gorman then defends traditional publishing methods, and ends up conflating several separate concepts into one false conclusion, saying “To think that digitization is the answer to all that ails the world is to ignore the uncomfortable fact that most people, young and old, prefer to interact with recorded knowledge and literature in the form of print on paper.” Dispensing with the obvious straw man of “all that ails the world”, a claim no one has made, we are presented with a fact that is supposed to be uncomfortable — it’s good to read on paper. Well duh, as the kids say; there’s nothing uncomfortable about that. Paper is obviously superior to the screen for both contrast and resolution; Hewlett-Packard would be about half the size it is today if that were not true. But how did we get to talking about paper when we were talking about knowledge a moment ago? Gorman is relying on metonymy. When he notes a preference for reading on paper he means a preference for traditional printed forms such as books and journals, but this is simply wrong. The uncomfortable fact is that the advantages of paper have become decoupled from the advantages of publishing; a big part of preference for reading on paper is expressed by hitting the print button. As we know from Lyman and Varian’s “How Much Information” study, “…the vast majority of original information on paper is produced by individuals in office documents and postal mail, not in formally published titles such as books, newspapers and journals.” We see these effects everywhere: well over 90% of new information produced in any year is stored electronically. Use of the physical holdings of libraries are falling, while the use of electronic resources is rising. Scholarly monographs, contra Gorman, are increasingly distributed electronically. Even the physical form of newspapers is shrinking in response to shrinking demand, and so on. The belief that a preference for paper leads to a preference for traditional publishing is a simple misunderstanding, demonstrated by his introduction of the failed e-book program as evidence that the current revolution is limited to “hobbyists and premature adopters.” The problems with e-books are that they are not radical enough: they dispense with the best aspect of books (paper as a display medium) while simultaneously aiming to disable the best aspects of electronic data (sharability, copyability, searchability, editability.) The failure of e-books is in fact bad news for Gorman’s thesis, as it demonstrates yet again that users have an overwhelming preference for the full range of digital advantages, and are not content with digital tools that are designed to be inefficient in the ways that printed matter is inefficient. If we gathered every bit of output from traditional publishers, we could line them up in order of vulnerability to digital evanescence. Reference works were the first to go — phone books, dictionaries, and thesauri have largely gone digital; the encyclopedia is going, as are scholarly journals. Last to go will be novels — it will be some time before anyone reads One Hundred Years of Solitude in any format other than a traditionally printed book. Some time, however, is not forever. The old institutions, and especially publishers and libraries, have been forced to use paper not just for display, for which is it well suited, but also for storage, transport, and categorization, things for which paper is completely terrible. We are now able to recover from those disadvantages, though only by transforming the institutions organized around the older assumptions. The ideal situation, which we are groping our way towards, will be to have all written material, wherever it lies on the ‘information to knowledge’ continuum, in digital form, right up the moment a reader wants it. At that point, the advantages of paper can be made manifest, either by printing on demand, or by using a display that matches paper’s superior readability. Many of the traditional managers of books and journals will suffer from this change, though it will benefit society as a whole. The question Gorman pointedly asks, by invoking Ned Ludd and his company, is whether we want that change to be in the hands of people who would be happy to discomfit society as a whole in order to preserve the inefficiencies that have defined their world.