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.

On copyright infringement and “theft”

Yesterday I went to an open discussion about SOPA with Jason Altmire, who represents my district. He came out against SOPA at the end of the event. But one thing that bugged me was that just about everyone used “theft” as a synonym for copyright infringement. And this “theft” by rogue websites in China and southeast Asia, everyone supposedly agrees, is a serious problem, even if SOPA isn’t the right answer.

Consider a typical case where somebody downloads a Hollywood movie to watch, without paying for it. Taking this movie wasn’t authorized by the copyright holders. But the copyright holders still own it. They still have all their copies, and they are still free to make more. They can distribute and license it as they wish. They can make sequels and spin-offs and t-shirts and bobble-heads.

What would you call that? I would call it copyright infringement, but I wouldn’t call it theft.

Now imagine a different scenario. A work you have is taken from you. And once it’s been taken, you can no longer make copies. In fact, you have to get rid of all the copies you have. When it was yours, you could make copies, send them to your friends, make derivatives, use it as a jumping off point for new works. You could do with it as you pleased. Now, you can’t do any of that without the permission of the person who took it from you.

Would you call that theft?

I would call it Golan v. Holder. Wikimedians are having to get rid of thousands of public domain works from Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons that used to be public domain in the U.S.—used to belong to the public, to use and copy and build from—which were put back into copyright by Congress. And the Supreme Court just decided that in fact, that’s just fine.

Save The Data campaign

Today I signed the Sunlight Foundation’s open letter to Congress about the planned cuts to the U.S. government’s open data programs.

Then I used their wizard to send out a letter to the editor to a bevy of newspapers.  Here’s the letter I wrote:

It’s deeply disappointing, but not surprising, that when budget cut time comes around, the small bit of funding for public access to government data is the first on the chopping block. We made real progress in recent years with data.gov and other programs that let people actually *see* how their government spends their money.

Of course the special interests–which benefited for so long from the lack of public information about government spending–want to go back to the bad old days. But cutting transparency in the name of the budget crunch is a false promise. The proposed 2011 budget would cut the Electronic Government Fund from $34 million down to $2 million, forcing the shutdown of data.gov and other key transparency and accountability programs–which have already saved us not millions but billions. The only reason to cut the transparency budget is for the sake of the special interests and corruption that thrive in the darkness.

If you live in the U.S., you should sign the open letter and write your own letter to the editors as well.

How can so many people be so wrong?

Is this a representative sample?

I came across an interesting and disturbing poll yesterday: a post on The Daily Beast reports the results of a new Harris poll that finds staggering levels of disconnection from reality among Republicans: 67% think Obama is a socialist, 57% think he’s Muslim, and 24% think he might be the Antichrist.

I dented (like tweeting, but with a free network service) my initial reaction:

57% of Republicans think Obama is Muslim, 24% think he may be the Antichrist? Really? I just can’t wrap my head around it.

American public political discourse has gotten bad, but is it really that bad?  As a friend reminded me, you should always be skeptical of “scientific” data presented in unscientific ways.  I’ve been to a Tea Party; there really are a lot of people who believe that stuff, even in Connecticut.  But 57% of Republicans, and 32% of all Americans, think Obama is Muslim?  It just doesn’t compute that in an age of such powerful and ubiquitous media, so many people could be so wrong.

Fortunately, it looks like unreason and willful ignorance aren’t so widespread as this poll indicates.  In short, the poll is surely crap.  Pew polls in October 2008 and March 2009 found that a stable 17% of Republicans and 11% of all Americans thought Obama was Muslim.  It’s still depressing that there was no decline in misinformation between the campaign and the early months of Obama’s presidency, but 17% is a far cry from 57%.  And it’s just not believable that it could have gone from 17% to 57% in the last year.

The ABC polling blog has a helpful analysis of the methodological flaws in the Harris poll:

The purpose seems to have been to see how many people the pollsters could get to agree to pejorative statements about Obama.

It’s still astounding (and depressing) that poll wording and plausible-sounding but biased methodology can so distort public opinion.  Not to mention that so many people are happy to run with it.

YOYOW vs. privacy and anonymity

Laura DeNardis, in her presentation for the “Technologies of Dissent” panel at the Access to Knowledge and Human Rights conference today, illustrated the dangers of too much openness and access to certain kinds of knowledge by pointing to eightmaps.com, a mashup of Google Maps and donor data for the Prop 8 anti-same-sex-marriage campaign in California: you can find out right where these donors live in San Francisco.

Later in the panel, Eddan Katz of the Electronic Frontier Foundation was emphasizing the virtues of online anonymity for facilitating free expression and dissent (with EFF’s Tor software, for example).

Obviously, most people at this conference think Prop 8 is a bad thing while anonymous communication between dissidents in places with oppressive and censorious governments is a good thing.  But is there a principled argument that eightmaps.com is good and legitimate and those Prop 8 donors ought not be able to hide from the public, while dissidents in Iran or China ought to be able to organize and speak out and push for their favored kinds of political change behind the cloak of anonymity?

It’s the tension, as panelist Anupam Chander explained it, between the Foulcault and the Habermas versions of the Internet’s potential: universal panopticon surveillance state vs. universal public sphere for rational discourse.

My own view is that there’s a balance to be struck between the classic net principle of YOYOW (“You Own Your Own Words” meaning both that you can say what you want to say and you are responsible for what you say) and the right to speak anonymously.  The balance (one of the driving tensions in the history of the Wikipedia community, incidentally) is essentially the question of  the limits of anonymous speech and action.

(Shooting from the hip here) I suggest a rule of thumb: the closer the political environment approximates an ideal Habermasian public sphere, the stronger the imperative that that people own their own words when they choose to engage in public discourse.  Likewise, the more limits on what people are allowed to say, the more right they have to engage in a wider variety of anonymous speech and action.  (For speech that is not intended to be part of the public sphere, things are quite different and there is more of an argument for privacy and anonymity.)

[A summary of the whole panel is up on the Yale ISP blog: A2K4 Panel II: Technologies of Dissent: Information and Expression in a Digital World]

“Minds for Sale” (or, “Clickworkers of the world, unite!”)

This recent lecture by Jonathan Zittrain is long, but well worth it.  It’s about various forms of crowdsourcing and clickwork, and their scary potential for exploitation, political manipulation, political repression, and other bad stuff, related to what I’ve blogged about Demand Media vs. Wikimedia and the psychology of fun and games.

The send-up of Wikipedians and why Wikipedia isn’t on Subvert and Profit is kinda cute at 39:20.

Wikipedia in theory (Marxist edition)

The zeroeth law of Wikipedia states: “The problem with Wikipedia is that it only works in practice. In theory, it can never work.”

That’s largely true of the kinds of theory that are most closely related to the hacker-centric early Wikipedia community: analytical philosophy, epistemology, and other offshoots of positive philosophy–the kinds of theory most closely related to the cultures of math and science.  (See my earlier post on “Wikipedia in theory“.)  But there’s another body of theory in which Wikipedia’s success can make a lot of sense: Marxism and its successors (“critical theory”, or simply “Theory”).

A fantastic post on Greg Allen’s Daddy Types blog, “The Triumph of the Crayolatariat“, reminded me (indirectly) of how powerful Marxist concepts can be for understanding Wikipedia and the free software and free culture movements more broadly.

It’s a core principle of post-industrial political economy that knowledge is not just a product created by economic and cultural activity, but a key part of the means of production (i.e., cultural capital).  Software, patentable ideas, and copyrighted content of all sorts are the basis for a wide variety of production.  Software is used to create more software as well as visual art, fiction, music, scientific knowledge, journalism, etc.  (See “Copyleft vs. Copyright: A Marxist Critique“, Johan Söderberg, First Monday.) And all those things are inputs into the production of new cultural products.  The idea of “remix culture” that Larry Lessig has been promoting recently emphasizes that in the digital realm, there’s no clear distinction between cultural products and means of cultural production; art builds on art.  (Lessig, however, has resisted associations between the Creative Commons cultural agenda and the Marxist tradition, an attitude that has brought attacks from the left, e.g., the Libre Society.)

Modern intellectual property regimes are designed to turn non-material means of production into things that can be owned.  And the free software and free culture movements are about collective ownership of those means of production.

Also implicit in the free culture movement’s celebration of participatory culture and user-generated content (see my post on “LOLcats as Soulcraft“) is the set of arguments advanced by later theorists about the commodification of culture.  A society that consumes the products of a culture industry is very different from one in which produces and consumers of cultural content are the same people–even if the cultural content created was the same (which of course would not be the case).

What can a Marxist viewpoint tell us about where Wikimedia and free culture can or should go from here? One possibility is online “social networking”.  The Wikimedia community, and until recently even the free software movement, hasn’t paid much attention to social networking or offered serious competition to the proprietary sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc.  But if current agenda is about providing access to digital cultural capital (i.e., knowledge and other intellectual works), the next logical step is to provide freer, more egalitarian access to social capital as well.    Facebook, MySpace and other services do this to some extent, but they are structured as vehicles for advertising and the furtherance of consumer culture, and in fact are more focused on commoditizing the social capital users bring into the system than helping users generate new social capital.  (Thus, many people have noted that “social networking sites” is a misnomer for most of those services, since they are really about reinforcing existing social networks,  not creating new connections.)

The Wikimedia community, in particular, has taken a dim view of anything that smacks of mere social networking (or worse, MMORPGs), as if cultural capital is important but social capital is not.  But from a Marxist perspective, it’s easier to see how intertwined the two are and how both are necessary to maintain a healthy free culture ecosystem.

Wikimedia and the rest of the free culture community, then, ought to get serious about supporting OpenMicroBlogging (the identi.ca protocol) and other existing alternatives to proprietary social networking and culture sites, and even perhaps starting a competitor to MySpace and Facebook.  (See some of the proposals I’m supporting on Wikimedia Strategic Planning wiki in this vein.)

The Obama poster goes to court

Comparison of obama photos to Fairey poster
Comparison of obama photos to Fairey poster

Maybe I’m weird, but I’m really excited about the prospect of high profile copyright/fair use litigation. As the New York Times reports, the Associated Press sued street artist Shepard Fairey over the Obama “Hope” poster, which was based on a shot by former A.P. freelance photographer Mannie Garcia.

A few weeks ago, I started the Wikipedia article on the poster. It ended up on the Main Page for “Did you know?” on inauguration day, and while it was there another editor, Dforest, pointed me to something very interesting: this Flickr photo by stevesimula (shown above). When I wrote the article, it was thought (and reported) that the lower shot (a Reuters photo by Jim Young) was the basis for Fairey’s poster. But stevesimula had convincingly demonstrated the true source, which apparently was known only to Fairey (and probably some of his crew), some of the Obama people, and whatever isolated netizens might have noticed. (I investigated some rumors that an art forum had found it months earlier, but couldn’t verify that.)

This was getting interesting, but beyond what was allowed on Wikipedia without violating the ban on Original Research. Long story short, I started a Wikinews article on the photo source, and a tip from Dforest and me (that the photo was from A.P., which we found with TinEye.com) led photographer Tom Gralish to find a copy of the original that included metadata, identifying the photographer. If we’d just been a little smarter, we might have beaten Gralish to the punch and broken a story of national import.

Now A.P. has sued Fairey (who didn’t profit directly from Obama poster sales, but no doubt has seen a huge surge in interest in his other for-profit work) for violating its copyright. Fairey, assisted by a Stanford law proffesor among others, is suing back, seeking a declaratory judgment that the poster is fair use. To make it even better, Mannie Garcia claims he actually owns the copyright, because of the terms of his A.P. contract.

I’m a big supporter of fair use, but this is an interesting case of pushing the boundaries. The main reason I’m ambivalent is the way Fairey handled it… he originally appropriated the image with no attempt at crediting Garcia. Fairey has obviously benefitted tremendously (if not directly, in terms of profit) from the image, but has also dramatically increased the value of the original. His work is also essentially a political statement, something fair use is supposed to protect and allow. But the hybrid nature of Fairey’s commercial street art (controversial even within the street art scene) complicates things. Either you’re doing this essentially anti-authoritarian street art that is based on grafitti culture, or you’re running an art business. If it’s the former, go ahead and break the rules you disagree with or don’t care about, but don’t expect to be making the big bucks mass-producing and selling your designs. If it’s the latter, you should at least have the decency to credit other artists whose work you use for your own.

I’m really rooting for Garcia, here. From all the snippets I’ve read, he seems gracious and thoughtful. From the Times:

“I don’t condone people taking things, just because they can, off the Internet,” Mr. Garcia said. “But in this case I think it’s a very unique situation.”

He added, “If you put all the legal stuff away, I’m so proud of the photograph and that Fairey did what he did artistically with it, and the effect it’s had.”

But I’m also rooting for Fairey, or at least for the entrenchment of liberal fair use rights.

Creative Commons on whitehouse.gov

The Obama transition team released most of its images and text under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License. Now this has carried over to the White House as well. Material produced by the federal government, of course, is public domain. But according to the copyright page on the new whitehouse.gov:

Except where otherwise noted, third-party content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License. Visitors to this website agree to grant a non-exclusive, irrevocable, royalty-free license to the rest of the world for their submissions to Whitehouse.gov under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Such an endorsement can only be a good thing for the free culture movement.

These are the kind of stories Wikinews should be doing

The election numerology blog fivethirtyeight.com has been publishing a series of fascinating “On the road” posts by Sean Quinn and photographer Brett Marty. Quinn and Marty have been traveling through battleground states investigating the “ground game” of the McCain and Obama campaigns, reporting on the voter registration and get-out-the-vote operations managed by volunteers and paid staffers in the regional and local campaign offices.

See the latest few:

Individually, these might seem minor, but the series as a whole makes for an important story that has been largely neglected by traditional news sources. It’s also the type of thing Wikinews could excel at, with a little more organization. Wikimedians all over the U.S. could go out the same weekend and do stories on the local dimensions of these national campaigns, and the result could be something very special.

Bonus link:

  • The Wikipedian Candidate – an interesting analysis of the (it seems increasingly clear) ill-advised selection of Sarah Palin as McCain’s VP and the important things that don’t come across in a Wikipedia article, from fivethirtyeight.com’s Nate Silver