I want a better social network

Facebook kinda sucks, and it’s not doing much to foster an informed and politically engaged citizenry. It certainly doesn’t help me to be a better citizen. Here’s what a better social network might look like.

Incentives for political engagement

Likes and comments from friends are the main drivers of both the creation of new posts and the spread of content through the newsfeed. I post things because it’s nice to feel liked and loved and to have people interested in what I have to say. Things that inspire strong emoji and pile-on comments are the most likely to earn me likes, and also the most likely to show up in my feed.

Imagine, instead, if local political engagement — showing up to a town council meeting, or calling my state legislator about a bill currently in discussion, or reporting a pothole — was the currency of your social network. I want something like the Sunlight Foundation’s tools in the middle of my online social experience. I want to see what my friends are saying, but also what they’re doing — especially when it’s something I can join in on.

Maybe streaks, like GitHub had?

Whatever the mechanisms, the things that are satisfying and addicting on a better social network should be the things that are also good for people.

Tools for collaboration

Discussions on Facebook, even when it comes to long-term issues of public importance, are ephemeral. There’s no mechanism for communities and networks to build and curate shared knowledge and context.

Local community wikis (like the handful of successful ones on localwiki.org) are still a good idea, they just lack critical mass. They would work if integrated into a better social network.

For non-local things — the quality of news sources, organizations, and everyday consumer issues — something more like aggregate reviews should be part of the system.

No ads

A big, distracting part of my Facebook feed is the ads and promoted stories. These are mostly extra-clickbait-y, ad-heavy versions of the same kinds of clickbait showing up in my feed anyway. More fundamentally, showing ads is what Facebook is designed for. Everything that is done to make it interesting and addicting and useful is ultimately an optimization for ad revenue. When one change user experience change would improve the well-being of users and another lead to 1% more ad impressions, Facebook will take the ad-driven path every time.

A better social network wouldn’t have ads.

Free software that respects privacy

Obviously, being able to get your data out and move it to another host would be a feature of an ideal social network. If the people who run it start doing things against your interests, you should have better alternatives than just signing off and deleting everything.


To recap: I want take Facebook, Nextdoor, Sunlight Foundation, Wikipedia, and lib.reviews, smash them all together into a great user experience and an AGPL license, and kill Facebook.

Now is the perfect time to take another shot at it. If there’s anyone working on something like this seriously, sign me up to help.

Scholarly societies, subscription fees, and open access

Strategic planning with historians. :-)
Strategic planning with historians. 🙂

This last weekend I flew to Chicago for a two-day strategic planning meeting for the History of Science Society (see my photos). The task, for me and about 40 others historians of science, was to figure out who the society should be trying to serve and what its goals should be. One of the key issues the society is dealing with is our membership model: joining the History of Science Society (HSS) currently consists of becoming a subscriber to the society’s main publications, ”Isis” (a quarterly journal) and ”Osiris” (an annual thematic journal), which are published by University of Chicago Press. The lion’s share of the society’s budget comes from subscription fees for these journals, but individual subscriptions (from about 2200 members, and falling) make up only about a third of that revenue; institutional subscriptions, mainly from libraries who subscribe to large bundles of content from academic publishers, make up the rest. This institutional subscription revenue has actually been increasing recently for HSS. But library budgets are being increasingly squeezed, and can only absorb so much of the cost of traditional journal publishing before many start cancelling the bundles they cannot afford.

Michael Magoulias of University of Chicago Press was part of this meeting, and he submitted a report on university press publishing as part of the ‘environmental scan’ document that was sent out before the meeting. In it, he frames the option of going open access for journals outside the sciences  like those of HSS, and probably many other scholarly societies as well  as shifting the costs from libraries to individual others. Author-pays OA options (or large grants to cover traditional journal costs) are the only ones Magoulias mentioned, but that doesn’t reflect the reality of how OA publishing in the humanities is trending. In fact, there are huge numbers of journals  in humanities, as well as social sciences and mathematics  that are run entirely outside of the traditonal publishing industry. Several open source journal management platforms are available and developing rapidly. (Open Journal Systems seems to be the most widely adopted.) These are essentially DIY, digital-only options, but they can be run with *very* low infrastructure costs (perhaps a few hundred dollars per year for cloud hosting), with the usually sorts of unpaid labor of editing the journal and managing peer review. This approach may mean losing some of the fringe benefits of a high-quality traditional journal  professional typesetting and copyediting  but it doesn’t have to mean a fundamental difference in the quality of the scholarship.

But in the case of HSS  and probably other scholarly societies as well  shifting away from traditional publishing to a low-cost OA model on an free and open source platform would actually mean losing revenue as well. I’d never considered this before. The real issue, then, is not about shifting costs from libraries to individual authors. It is about libraries  through their bundled subscription fees to academic publishers  subsidizing the activities of scholarly societies (after the publishers have taken their cut). Is that how scholarly societies want to be funding themselves? I know that’s not how I want HSS to be funding itself.

the use of Aaron Swartz photographs

After Aaron Swartz committed suicide in January, and in the months since then as issues of internet freedom and his own tragic story have continued to make news, there’s been a lot of demand for photos of Aaron. I had three photos of him up on Flickr and Wikimedia Commons, from a 2009 Wikipedia meetup.

(I went back to my archives and found several more from that meetup.)

When I got contacted by photo editors who wanted to use these photos, I tried to get them to follow the terms of the CC-BY-SA license. In two cases, Rolling Stone and New Republic, I got a chance to explain how to use a Creative Commons license in print. For most photo editors, free licenses are a big unknown, but lately (in my anecdotal experience) they’ve been more willing to use and follow the licenses than in years past. Here are the spreads.

Top: The New Republic, 11 March 2013. Bottom: Rolling Stone, 28 February 2013
Top: The New Republic, 11 March 2013. Bottom: Rolling Stone, 28 February 2013

I’ve tried to follow how these photos have been used online, as well, to understand how–and how well–freely licensed images are used by news websites. Of the 42  uses I’ve looked at there are:

  • 6 that follow the license, or come close enough. (If they include a link to the original on Commons or Flickr, I count it as close enough, since others will be able to find all the attribution and license info, even if the reuser isn’t following the license to the letter.)
  • 9 that provide attribution to me, but do not follow the license (ie, there’s no indication that the file is freely licensed).  Among these is the long Slate profile that is also sold as a Kindle ebook… but with no attribution in the ebook that I can tell.
  • 9 (most of which credit me) that add an illegitimate attribution to photo agencies: DPA/Corbis, DPA/Landov and such. Among them: Business Week, New York Magazine, New Scientist, and Bloomberg.com. Two from time.com did not initially credit me, only the photo agencies, but the credits were updated after @wikisignpost contacted them. A few others still don’t. I’m not sure how the photo got appropriated into (I assume) DPA’s collection, but they seem to be distributing it widely and internationally.
  • 18 that provide no attribution. In addition to the Amazon ebook version of the Slate piece, the more significant places that don’t use any attribution include the Boston NPR station, Democracy Now, and a Fast Company piece by the project lead of Creative Commons Brazil.

Probably the most interesting use is this mixed media derivative (unattributed, and with no free licensing that I can tell) from a Hungarian website. If anyone knows the language and wants to try to get them to release it under a free license, please do.

Aaron Swartz mixed media portrait


The time.com writer put me in touch with their photo editor, who sent me a screenshot from the Landov website, showing how my photo appears in the photo licensing database.

Landov screenshotThe last part of the Caption section reads:

Photo: Sage Ross (Editor’s note: usable only under consideration of Creative Commons Lizenz CC-BY-SA 2.0 and will full reference) DPA/LANDOV

But the Comments/Restrictions section is blank, and the Photographers/Source line that news orgs would typically use just says SAGE ROSS/DPA/LANDOV. So basically they are charging news organizations for this photo and hiding away the fact that it’s not their photo to license in the normal way, and that if their customers want to use it, they actually have to follow the same rules as everyone who gets it for free from the original source.

How much should I charge for use of my photos?

That’s a question that’s been tough for me, as it is for a lot of amateurs with decent cameras who occasionally get the chance to make a bit of money through their photography. So just to provide some points of reference, I’ll share a few of my experiences.

This is the first photo I made money from:

Education, a stained glass window at Yale created by Louis Comfort Tiffany

An editor from New Scientist contacted me through Wikipedia. (I had actually released it public domain, but they wanted to license it directly.) I had no idea what to ask, which I think I told them, and I think the $300 I got for it was their first offer to me. (Actually, when the wire transfer came through, it was only $275, minus an additional $10 bank fee.) It was used as a half-page illustration in the middle of the 19 July 2008 issue. Given that this was their first offer, it was probably toward the low end of what I could have gotten.

In 2009, made $100 from another public domain photo, of a painting of the Great Fire of London. Parthenon Entertainment contacted me through Wikimedia Commons, and I explained that, in the US, my photo wasn’t even eligible for copyright, but that I would license whatever rights I might or might not have in the photo for $250. They said limited budget was why they turned to Commons in the first place, and they could just offer $100. I said yes and counted myself lucky.

Also in 2009, I got $50 for a shot of a Loring peach from Macore, a company that makes plant tags and labels for nurseries. They would have used the CC license if I was okay with with a website only credit, but they didn’t want to put a credit on the actual plant tag they made with it.

“Austin Joseph”, perhaps

In 2010, I discovered using TinEye that an digital textbook company was using an image I took of a sign-holding protester from a health care reform town hall meeting for one of their videos, without following the license. I sent them an email asking them to release video under the appropriate license… or alternatively, I’d take $400 for permission to use the image. They took that option. Unfortunately, I don’t know who the young man in the photo is (and of course, have no model release form, although that shouldn’t be necessary for the types of editorial use in an educational context that they are using it for). An anonymous editor tagged it on Commons as “Austin Joseph”, but that’s not much help.

Later in 2010, the journal Science published a portrait I made of historian Steven Shapin in a review of his book, crediting the image as “SAGE ROSS / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS” but without mention of the license. Since they really ought to know better (and they are pay-walled, and subscriptions are very pricy), I explained in an email to the editors how they had neglected to use a free license and attached an unsolicited invoice for $2000. I never heard back.

In early 2012, after I sent an email to the Pittsburgh Zoo about some photos of their beautiful infant gorilla, they put many of them up on their blog, and then the photos spread to ZooBorns. Then, I got contacted by TODAY.com; I ended up asking for and getting $200 for the use of four shots on their (then new) Animal Tracks blog. (Tragically, the baby gorilla died a few months later.)

In March 2012, I got a cold email from Envision Communications, a political ad firm that had seen a Tea Party protest photo of mine on a random blog. (Incidentally, the blog credited me by name, but didn’t follow the license.) They wanted to use it in a campaign commercial they were producing (for a Democrat). I figured it was time to aim higher with my pricing (and hey, TV!) so I think I threw out $1000. They said their budget would allow more like $150, and I ultimately got $175 for it (for use in only one commercial). The producer said he’d let me know once it aired so I could see it, but that must have fallen off his radar during the hectic campaign season. (UPDATE: I pinged them, and it turns out the spot didn’t end up running.)

UPDATE – 2014-06-07

I got contacted earlier this year by Cengage Learning, who requested to use three of my photos from tea party and health care protests for a journalism textbook. They asked for an invoice in the first email, so I said I would send one shortly for $1800. They said the maximum budget was $350 per photo, and corrected that to $300 shortly after. It took a few months, but I finally did get $900 for the three of them.

One trend I noticed is that I’ve gotten a lot of photo inquiries to my (now out-of-date) work email, even though it’s not the account associated with my photos on either Flickr or Commons. The takeaway, I think, is that people will use whatever email they find when they google your name or look at your profile, so if you want people to randomly offer to pay you for photos, it’s good to add your human-readable email address somewhere easy to find.

UPDATE – 2014-09-12

Since the previous update, I’ve licensed another photo, of my grandpa’s old hinny, for use in the 2nd edition of Carl Zimmer’s book Evolution. I asked for $300, and the photo editor said her per picture limit was $150. I wanted to test the supposed limit, so I said I could do $200; that apparently needed to be run by the publisher, but I ultimately got $175 (after a few weeks). Probably it wouldn’t be worth the risk for just the extra $25, but it was good to get that data point; in cases where I think it could fetch considerably more than the stated limit, I’ll definitely hold out in the future.

Open Reviews storyboards

I’m taking the free Stanford Human-Computer Interaction course, and I thought I’d post the storyboards from the second assignment. We started with “point of view” that expresses a problem and an approach to solving it, then on to storyboards and design mockups. Mine:

In order to change the way we buy and consume things, user-generated reviews — and the systems for creating and using them — need to be free-as-in-freedom, controlled by the communities that make and use them (not by big corporations for their own ends).

My first storyboard: a free culture review site, from the perspective of someone like me
The second storyboard: A little bit of a broader perspective, on how I imagine a free culture review site could help small businesses

You can also see my mockups for two different user interfaces for this idea:

We’ll see if I can get through the later assignments and put together a functional prototype. Anyone want to help me do this for real?


“they didn’t belong to us at Pixar anymore”

We picked up some Toy Story toys at a garage sale this weekend, which have become the center of Brighton’s life for the time being.

John Lasseter, director of Toy Story, has a great story about how, five days after the movie came out and audiences started falling in love with it, he

realized that Woody, Buzz Lightyear, all the Toy Story characters… they didn’t belong to us at Pixar anymore,

but to the people who had made those characters a part of their own lives.

Of course, the lawyers at Pixar will tell you a very different story.

Where Good Ideas Come From

I just finished Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.  It’s great read; I went straight through in one sitting, en-route to San Francisco.

At the start, Johnson sketches out his ambitions for a “natural history of innovation” by looking at three different kinds of environments that have been extremely conducive to innovation: coral reefs and their enormous biodiversity; cities and the rich cultural and subcultural diversity they generate; and the Internet, the key generative platform that underlies so many of the most celebrated innovations of recent years.  Patterns of innovation are fractal, he says, with recurring features to be found for ecological and macroevolutionary innovation, microevolutionary innovation, the physiology of innovation (that is, the neuroscience of how ideas come about), habits and lifestyles that foster innovation, innovation-friendly work environments, and social and political structures that promote widespread innovation.  So Johnson takes a “long zoom” approach, using examples from every level of zoom–but primarily, the stories of particular scientific and technological developments–to identify seven patterns that are part of innovative environments.

Johnson also makes clear at the outset his overall conclusion, which will be familiar to anyone involved with the free culture movement: “we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them.”

The seven chapters on Johnson’s seven innovation concepts are fun and interesting.  I won’t go into detail; I’ll just say that each of them—the adjacent possible, liquid networks, the slow hunch, serendipity, error (as a goad to try new things), exaptation, and platforms (upon which further innovation can be built)—is a useful tool for thinking about innovation.  Johnson doesn’t convince me that this is any sort of natural or complete set of concepts for understanding innovative environments, but I don’t think he really tries to (despite the definitive subtitle: The Natural History of Innovation).  Others attempting a similar analysis of innovation would no doubt frame it in terms of different concepts.  Nevertheless, Johnson’s chosen concepts are satisfying and he puts them to good use.

It’s the concluding chapter that leaves me frustrated.  Here, Johnson tries to generalize about innovative environments using a framework from Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks.  He plots four “quadrants” where innovation might take place: market-focused individual environments (the entrepreneur inventor working alone), market-focused network environments (the group of firms or individual entrepreneurs sharing ideas and collaborating), non-market individual environments (the amateur inventor, the cloistered academic), and non-market network environments (the academic community, amateur open-source projects).  He categorizes two hundred “good ideas” (with no defined criteria for how they were selected) according to these four quadrants, and concludes that markets (with their intellectual property regimes that produce artificial scarcity for ideas) are not the ideal drivers of innovation they are often characterized as.

I agree with the conclusion itself, but I don’t think Benkler’s framework is a particularly useful way to categorize innovation here.  As Johnson notes, ideas happen at the level of individuals (with an enormous role, of course, for their environments).  A market/non-market dichotomy obscures the more fundamental issue of the motivation of individual innovators.  Taking an historical view, the political economy of science and technology has shifted dramatically from the Renaissance (where Johnson begins his catalog of innovations) through the Enlightenment and the Industrial Era into the century of Big Science.  Simply plotting the major innovations coming from each quadrant doesn’t account for the changing number of people trying to innovate in different types of environments.  And even within a given environment (say, the patronage scene in 17th century Italy, an Eastman Kodak R&D lab in the mid-twentieth century, or an academic molecular biology lab in the 1990s), the mix of market and non-market motivations for a given researcher doesn’t sort out neatly according to private sector vs. public sector.

Conspicuously absent from the bibliography is Steven Shapin’s brilliant The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation, which has shaped a lot of my thinking about environments for innovation and the relationship between markets and professional research.  I’d love to see a discussion between Shapin and Johnson; their ideas, in Johnson’s words, “want to connect, fuse, recombine.”

a good day for free culture in the mail

I got a trio of nice packages in the mail today, from Automattic, the Wikimedia Foundation, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Matt Mullenweg sent me a lovely “code is poetry” WordPress t-shirt, along with some nice stickers, pencils, and a certificate that I’m one of the “Three Most Important People in WordPress“.  Thanks, Matt!  GPL FTW!!

I got a letter and a physical barnstar thanking me for contributing to the Wikimedia Strategic Planning process last year.

And I got my membership package from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, with a t-shirt and a sticker.

Plagiarism and authorship

From a New York Times article, “Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in Digital Age“:

…these cases — typical ones, according to writing tutors and officials responsible for discipline at the three schools who described the plagiarism — suggest that many students simply do not grasp that using words they did not write is a serious misdeed.

It is a disconnect that is growing in the Internet age as concepts of intellectual property, copyright and originality are under assault in the unbridled exchange of online information, say educators who study plagiarism.

Digital technology makes copying and pasting easy, of course. But that is the least of it. The Internet may also be redefining how students — who came of age with music file-sharing, Wikipedia and Web-linking — understand the concept of authorship and the singularity of any text or image.

Remixing, building on the work of others, collaborating (often anonymously), challenging the very premise of intellectual property… these are all happening.  And yes, the web makes plagiarism easier than ever to conduct (and to discover).  But is student plagiarism really coupled with changing conceptions of authorship?

I haven’t seen much evidence of that.  In the NYT article, I see instead people using plagiarism to attack values and ideas they don’t like.  For example, anthropologist Susan D. Blum, author of My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture:

She contends that undergraduates are less interested in cultivating a unique and authentic identity — as their 1960s counterparts were — than in trying on many different personas, which the Web enables with social networking.

“If you are not so worried about presenting yourself as absolutely unique, then it’s O.K. if you say other people’s words, it’s O.K. if you say things you don’t believe, it’s O.K. if you write papers you couldn’t care less about because they accomplish the task, which is turning something in and getting a grade,” Ms. Blum said, voicing student attitudes. “And it’s O.K. if you put words out there without getting any credit.”

So plagiarism is a way to cast changing concepts of authorship and originality (and the politics of free culture that go with that) as moral failings.

Wikimania 2010

Free Knowledge in the City of Freedom. Staying out until dawn was not uncommon.

I am writing wrote this on the plane back from my first Wikimania. Wow! An amazing experience!

First off, I couldn’t have written my ROFLCon blog post if I had been to Wikimania already. What is true of the social dynamic of Wikipedia meetups for (mainly) the English Wikipedia community–that we tend to be on the introverted side, and it takes a while for people to open up–doesn’t translate to the international scope and scale of Wikimania. Wikimedians there were warm and friendly from the get-go. Maybe it takes a critical mass of sociality before introverts start to open up, rather than merely time. So bigger is better.

Organizationally, things were modestly chaotic. For the most part this was fine. The one real fail was that many attendees were unexpectedly kicked out of their dorms early, and I heard that a group of them ended up spending one night in a public park.

It’s really a shame that Wikimania hasn’t been held in North America since Wikimania 2005 in Boston. That was before the real upswing of Wikipedia’s popularity, and the majority of active American and Canadian Wikimedians have never had a chance since they joined to attend a nearby Wikimania.

Filmakers Scott Glosserman and Nic Hill with Jimmy Wales

One of the highlights of the conference was the premiere of Truth in Numbers?, a documentary about Wikipedia that’s been about 5 years in the making. It’ll be released publicly later this year. Reactions from Wikipedians were mixed and complicated, although during the screening itself it felt like a very positive reaction. The film gives a lot of focus to some shallow or misleading lines of criticism, and on an intellectual level, it comes off as largely anti-Wikipedia, contrasting the reasonable-sounding arguments of mature critics with the naive optimism of youthful Wikipedians. (For the most part, the critics’ arguments are easily answered, but the counter-arguments are a little more sophisticated than what can be explained well in a documentary aimed at an audience with little Wikipedia background.) Emotionally, though, I felt that Wikipedia–or rather, the Wikipedians–win in a landslide.

The Truth in Numbers? filmmakers also plan on releasing all the used and unused footage–full interviews with Wikipedians from around the world as well as important critics and supporters–so that others can re-edit and re-purpose it. There are many stories that could have been told in Truth in Numbers? I think the film is emotionally satisfying and it’s strong by the standards of the documentary genre.  Comparing it with other documentaries about weird communities, it’s far better than, say, Revolution OS, but not quite to the level Darkon or Spellbound.  I’m excited to see what else might come of it. A film intended to tell the history of Wikipedia would be quite different, and a film about the politics and values and philosophy of the Wikimedia movement would be different yet again. Hopefully the licensing of the extra footage will be free enough that the Wikimedia community can actually use it.

It was so great meeting many of the people I’ve known only online.  Really, Wikimedians are the awesome-est people in the world.  A whole year is too long until Wikimania 2011 in Haifa, Israel.  Hopefully I’ll be able to make it to Wiki-Conference New York in August to hold me over; last year’s was great, and this year’s should be even better.

Open Space discussion on Strategy

I took a few pictures, which seem to have been well received.  They’re all on Wikimedia Commons, too, along with 1000 others.  As a default, I didn’t add names for anyone but Wikimedia board and staff, since many Wikimedians may not like having named pics publicly available.  But let me know and I’ll add your name to your pic, if you like.