danah boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, a fellow at the Berkman Center, and director of the Data and Society Institute. danah has been working on the issues associated with “It’s Complicated” for many years. 10 years ago, Ethan and danah were two of the youngest people at a conference. danah told him, “I only have one secret to get through these events. I tell them what their children are doing.” Telling people what their children are doing online is incredibly valuable, either because we’re parents who care about our children, or because we care about the future of the Internet. danah has been relentless over the last decade in trying to make it clear that simple snap answers about the Internet (good, bad, dangerous, amazing) are utterly and totally inadequate. What we need to do is to take a long, careful look at the context that underlies people’s behaviours online. We’re in a moment where the easiest thing to do is to say “it’s simple.” danah has put forward a book that says “it’s complicated.”
Today is the official publication of the book and danah tells us that she wanted to spend the day with friends. (Her day began, mediawise, with a celebratory story on NPR, ”Online, Researcher Says, Teens Do What They’ve Always Done”) She’s been affiliated with the Berkman Center, in one context or another, for fifteen years. Rather than lecture about the book, she wants to provide some context on her thinking, then take questions.
danah explains that she was part of the first generation to grow up online, and that the internet was her “saving grace”. Her brother tied up the phone lines with strange modem squeals, and he showed her that the internet was made of people. Once she’d made that discovery, the phone line wasn’t safe after her mother went to bed. The first $700 phone bill ended that, but introduced danah to the wider world of phone phreaking and misbehavior to ensure she had access to outline spaces.
She went to school in computer science to explore the space, but didn’t really find her direction until she came to grad school and was able to study social media. She began a blog in 1998, and has been participating in and working on social media since then. Working with Judith Donath in 2002, she was invited to join Friendster a year before the network became prominent and widely used (see this paper on Friendster).
The early adopters of Friendster were geeks, freaks and queers, danah tells us, and those groups are the early adopters of most new technology platforms. As someone who identifies with all those groups, danah tells us that she had a front-row seat for Friendster’s successes and missteps, and was often able to interrogate the platform’s founder about his decisions. She moved to studying MySpace, and benefitted from the shift of youth to that platform, allowing her to watch the rise and fall of two major social media platforms (see danah’s research on Friendster and MySpace and this paper on Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites)
danah tells us that MySpace was based on Cold Fusion, a now-antiquated database programming language, and that the vulnerabilities of the site led her to novel research methods. User IDs were assigned sequentially, and she was able to sample users by choosing a random subset of IDs. But as her research developed, it became less easy to randomly approach youth online, so danah shifted her research methods to working offline, traveling around the United States to meet the young users of these platforms. (The major problem with interviewing 166 teenagers was dietary – it involved a lot of cafeteria lunches and a lot of McDonalds.)
Her research on teens informed her doctoral dissertation, and once she’d completed it, she felt a need to discuss the same issues with a broader audience. The book is organized around myths associated with youth and online media: the idea that youth are digital natives, that online spaces are heavily sexualized, and that online spaces are dangerous to youth.
Her overall takeaway from this research: we have spent thirty years restricting the ability of youth to get together face to face in the physical world. These technologies give youth access to public life once again and to make meaning of the world around them. Youth want to gather and socialize with their friends and become part of public life. Many youth would rather get together in real life, but turn to online spaces because those are the only spaces where young people can interact with one another in public life.
“There’s so much learning, so much opportunity through being part of public life”, says danah. We need to accept the idea that these online spaces are the key public spaces for young people.
Dorothy Zinberg asks about cycles – the decline of Friendster and MySpace – is Facebook now declining? And how do we expect these youth to change over the next decade?
danah notes that ten years ago, email was something people were excited about – “You’ve got mail” was a popular ringtone. Now, we open email with apprehension and worry. And that’s how teens are now approaching Facebook. Teens are not running from it, but it’s no longer the “passion play” – instead, it’s a place to connect with adults in your life. Who wants to spend their time hanging out with adults? The idea of a single platform to rule them all will look like a historical anomaly. It’s more natural to see fragmentation, a wealth of platforms that people use for different reasons and in different contexts. There are messaging, photo and videosharing services, all of which have emerged as new spaces for youth. We’re also seeing the emergence of interest-driven spaces like Tumblr or Twitter, which make it possible to geek out on fashion or music. There are also media for different communities – people obsessed with media are fascinated with Secret, which looks more like ChatRoulette in terms of speed. Young people, depending on their interests and passions, are moving across different services with texting as the single common denominator. danah notes that texting behavior in the US is anomalous, as we are one of the few countries where you pay to send and receive texts – there’s nothing more socially awkward than sending someone a message and making them pay for it.
As far as where youth usage is going: it’s moving to mobile. Mobile is an intimacy device. In response to discussions over safety, computers are now used in shared spaces, like the living room. The mobile device is a way of maintaining privacy. But the world of aps is a very different world than the world of websites. It’s surprising that we don’t yet have powerful geographically-linked apps – it may be that since youth are restricted to a world of home and school, geolocation doesn’t yet have a youth audience, and people love to experiment on young users. She notes that the old is new again, pointing to the rise of the aniGIF.
David LaRochelle wonders whether issues of Facebook’s collapsed context is a technical problem – could something like Google Plus solve those technical problems? danah explains that the key feature of new platforms is that Mom doesn’t know about them yet – once Mom knows you have an account, she can watch over your shoulder or demand you friend her. She asks us to think back to high school: not everyone in your class are friends with one another. When you plan a party, you don’t want to invite everyone. That same drama plays out online – you can move to a different platform as a way of connecting with a subset of friends.
Judith Donath asks what we’ve learned longitudinally from studying social media over the course of years. What happens when a generation that grew up on one set of applications is now 23? danah explains that the book is really about high school. She’s tracked some of these teens through college or the military and into the real world. Something that becomes clear is that certain behaviors are tightly associated with a life stage. The constraints of high school dynamics seem to force people to work through status, peer relationships and early sexual relationships, all of which play into online media environments, and then, in turn, influence those school dynamics. Once people are no longer constrained by school dynamics, you see a more mature set of dynamics: more dating, more efforts to appear cool, and lots of discussion about employment. The use of social media changes sharply for 20-somethings who want to go into social media marketing, or government, where that behavior ends up changing their online behavior.
A visiting scholar from Valencia asks about gender differences in teen behavior online, especially around experimentation. danah notes that it’s challenging to differentiate between gendered behavior online and offline: online behavior mirrors the offline. Status dynamics come into focus for girls earlier than for boys, while boys have more gameplay relationships (pranking, punking) with their peers, both offline and online. One of her book chapters is on “drama”, a predominantly female behavior online and off. What’s more challenging in studying gender online is watching gendered pressures, especially around sexuality, playing online. Young girls see a Miley Cyrus video and feel pressure to dress and behave certain ways. Young boys feel social pressure to talk to girls in certain ways. Online environments make very clear how powerful these pressures are.
Tim asks about policy and practice responses to youth behavior online. danah explains that she never expected to engage in policy through this research. She takes us back to a lawsuit mounted by 49 states attorneys general against MySpace, accusing the platform of enabling sexual predation. One of the outcomes of the suit was appointing a Internet Safety Task Force, consisting of danah, John Palfrey, and Dena Sacco, to help MySpace regulate behavior. The attorneys general expected a tension between the three, but the three worked closely together to consider actual data around contact, conduct and content online. Their research found far less evidence for dangerous behavior online than the attorneys general had expected to find, and came to the counterintuitive finding that the laws designed to prevent bullying had often had negative effects. danah hopes that one thing this book can do is help prevent ridiculous, counterproductive laws from being written.
danah also explains that it’s been very hard to work with practitioners, like teachers. In the early days of social media, teachers often came into these spaces and explored how to interact with students. It’s now become an article of faith that teachers should not engage with students in these spaces, and that’s a shame, as it’s important to have non-custodial guides online. Don’t friend a student, but if a student reaches out to you, reciprocate. “Don’t flip out” when students misbehave, but make clear that you’re present in the space. She notes that Jane Jacobs explained the importance of eyes of the street in urban spaces – we might think of the same dynamic happening online.
Kate Darling notes that Sherry Turkle speculates that online communication in the place of face to face communication is dangerous and detrimental. danah explains that she loves Sherry as a person, but strongly disagrees with her as a researcher. Sherry starts conversations by noting how uncomfortable teens are interacting with adults – when, asks danah, have teens ever been comfortable interacting with adults?! Teens are comfortable socializing with each other face to face, but retreat to devices around adults. Teens want to spend more time face to face with friends and generally are prevented from doing so. “Every aspect of sociality is a learning process and you strengthen different muscles through different interactions.” Teens may be more sophisticated in interacting online than in interacting face to face simply through where they have the most practice. But it’s absurd to suggest that teens are somehow stunted by online interaction.
“The political activist in me got entertained by the idea that a generation learned to use proxies to escape restrictions put in place by adults.” When we talk about teenagers, we’re usually dealing with our own anxieties, danah says. Lawmakers became obsessed with teen sexting before Anthony Weiner came on the scene and reminded everyone that lawmakers can misbehave as well.
Deb Chachra refers to a Sumerian clay tablet in which a father complains about his slacker son. How do we overcome the “kids these days” narrative that shapes so much of discussion around kids and social media. danah notes that the downside of Deb’s example is that we appear to be predestined to repeat these behaviors. The key is to get adults to listen to young people. Young people are telling their stories – the positive and the negative – to an unprecedented degree. Instead of complaining, there’s an amazing opportunity to listen to youth writ large. danah hopes the book will spark conversations about how we listen, rather than answering specific questions. That said, she worries that protectionism of young people leads to young adults who are not well socialized to deal with the choices of college or adult life.
A questioner asks about kids moving to different platforms to escape their parents. She notes that there’s a spectrum of risk from paranoia to actual risk. If kids are escaping to these narrow, parent-free spaces, who are the people on the streets who can provide eyes on online behavior? The providers of these applications are not teenage kids and may not have the best interests of teens in mind. danah suggests that we think about what adults are in the lives of kids beyond their parents. We want kids to have multiple adults – the cool aunt, the teacher they like – in their lives, and they are likely to invite these adults into online spaces. This is why age segregation is a dangerous direction for online platforms – we want adults and youth interacting in the same spaces. But danah doesn’t believe this will necessarily happen automatically – we may need to consciously create eyes on the streets, as community activists do by putting college students on the streets to work with at-risk youth. We need people to be involved in online spaces in a way that they are available, but non-judgemental.
danah notes her involvement with Crisis Textline, an NGO she helped start, that uses texting to connect teens to crisis hotlines. The worst thing we can do, she suggests, is put these decisions in the hands of engineers. We need to look at the people who understand these social systems and build on their best practices.
Rob Faris notes that part of being a kid is surviving your own mistakes and being able to hit the reset button. How does that work in online spaces? Could platforms and online spaces improve on this score? danah notes that one of the challenges online is that things go on your permanent record – she notes that her teenage Usenet posts are still online. We don’t know the longitudinal answer, danah notes – she’s part of a cohort that really did grow online, but it’s not clear how that information may affect life going forward. People assumed that bullying would be worse online, but it’s actually turned out that having a record of bullying is helping people find support. Documenting self-harm seems to lead youth to interventions that happen more quickly, but perhaps that accelerated progress is a good thing. Perhaps we are able to acknowledge the past through some sort of online transparency, putting information online before someone else does. She notes that we’ve moved into a culture of forgiveness for US presidents – from I didn’t inhale, to I did drugs, but I was a kid from Clinton to Obama – that we may simply be making it easier to escape your past. The question is whether this will be true for underprivileged youth in the same way that it is for the most privileged.
A questioner asks about youth’s relationships with free services. danah notes that this generation has very little access to financial capital. Babysitting and newspaper routes no longer produce revenue for kids, and kids now compete with fifty-year olds for fast food jobs. Without capital, there’s enormous pressure for kids in poorer families to get a phone and a pay as you go data plan. As a result, she saw a lot of kids engaged in illegal activities to obtain devices. Once kids are online, it’s all about free. They don’t particularly like ads, but they don’t see an alternative. The response is a form of gameplaying: can you send content to your friends that make them get absurd ads? Young people understand the ecosystem, but their relationship is one of hacking and playing. Their goal is socializing with their friends, and they understand that free services make that possible.
Tim Mallay notes that he recently revisited danah’s discussions of gentrification in MySpace. In 2006-7, danah explains, she saw a split between youth moving to MySpace and Facebook. Facebook appeared safe and high-status, while MySpace seemed dangerous, poor and used by people of color. danah wrote an essay she now regrets discussing this dynamic, and woke up to a media storm that resulted from her observations. Teens often told danah that she was right, though insufficiently nuanced. These race and class dynamics are still critical to understanding social media, danah tells us, but there’s no longer as start a division between sites. Instead, it plays out in different behavior on the different platforms. Because social media plays out around the race and class networks of your social circle, it’s impossible to understand online behavior without considering these issues. danah guesses that we’ll see this again once we’re fragmenting between different services like messaging aps – adoption of the different platforms tends to be based on race and class. This matters, because in 2006-7 colleges were recruiting online – we need to make sure that we don’t reproduce privilege online by favoring some platforms over others.
A question from a Berkman staffer begins by noting that he coaches high school atheletes, and he’s observed that they are less broadly skilled than they were years ago. He believe this is because students only engage in physical behavior in structured ways. Is it possible that we may finally be reaching a point where we will be able to tell youth that it’s okay to go outside again? danah notes that, especially within privileged environments, it’s hard to get a network of parents to change behavior. It’s a collective action problem – if you allow your children to be “free range” kids, other parents will force their children to shun your child. Because it doesn’t work to go parent to parent, danah feels it’s important to bring these messages of the importance of giving youth space to roam online and offline to media and other public fora. Oddly, she’s more successful making this case for urban families than to suburban ones, if only because public transportation makes it possible for children to roam.
danah will be speaking tonight (February 25) at the Harvard Bookstore. Come and hear hear her talk about “It’s Complicated” and bring your own questions.
My students Erhardt Graeff, Matt Stempeck and I have a new paper in First Monday, titled “The Battle for ‘Trayvon Martin’: Mapping a Media Controversy On- and Offline”. In it, we examine how the shooting of Trayvon Martin turned into a dominant story in the news media by examining blogs, newspapers, Twitter, television broadcasts, online petition signatures and other media. The paper is here, but Erhardt’s summary of the paper may be a helpful introduction (as the paper itself is pretty long.)
We had three goals in writing the paper: to understand how the tragic, but initially unheralded death of Trayvon Martin became a national debate on race; to document how different actors frame and reframe stories when they receive media attention; and to show the value of analyzing a single news story in a variety of different mediums. It follows on Benkler et. al.’s paper analyzing online conversations about SOPA/PIPA, using many of the same tools, but adding some new data sources, like Archive.org’s collection of closed captions of broadcast television.
This paper is an outgrowth of the work we’ve been doing on Media Cloud for several years, supported by the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Foundation and the Knight Foundation. There’s a pile of Media Cloud-related research coming out soon. The SOPA/PIPA and Trayvon papers show the utility of the tools we call “Controversy Mapper” for analyzing a specific issue or set of stories, while another set of tools (related to the Mapping the Globe and World According To projects from Catherine d’Ignazio and Rahul Bhargava) are launching later this spring. We owe huge thanks to Hal Roberts, David LaRochelle and the team at Harvard and MIT that has been building the infrastructure to make this work possible.
It’s really been a pleasure working with students who’ve been willing to put hundreds of hours into untangling a complex and important story. Hope what we’ve learned is useful to you.
Hugo Barra is a long-time veteran of the technology industry. Raised in Brazil, he came to MIT in 1996 and completed B.S. and M.Eng. degrees in computer science and electrical engineering before joining wireless software company Lobby7. From there, he joined Nuance Communications and later, Google, working on the Android team, where he rose to Vice President of Android Product Management, becoming one of the public faces of the company, introducing new phones and software to audiences at trade shows.
Most people, even those who follow tech closely, didn’t know who Barra was until he announced in August of last year that he was leaving Google for Xiaomi, a Chinese manufacturer of smartphones. The departure of a non-Chinese Google executive for a Chinese company was surprising enough to merit coverage throughout the tech press and in the Guardian, where Charles Arthur saw the move as a coup for Xiaomi and reason to ask questions about Google’s strategic leadership around Android.
Stories about Barra’s job change took on a tabloid quality when writers began speculating that his real reason for leaving Google was a romantic rivalry. Business Insider reported that Barra had been involved with a Google Glass product manager, Amanda Rosenberg, who was now dating Sergey Brin, and Sydney’s Morning Herald reported that Barra’s departure from Google was a “collateral casualty” of the complicated love life of Google’s founder.
After all, a star executive at America’s most-admired company would never leave for a Chinese phone company because he saw opportunity there. Putting the Pacific between you and a vengeful software billionaire is one of the few logical explanations for an American to want to work in China.
Barra patiently explained to reporters that he’d come to Xiaomei to work with Bin Lin, the head of Xiaomi, who had been the head of Google’s mobile engineering unit in China. While he was at Google, Barra was impressed with the ways Lin’s team had extended and modified Android, and frequently brought Xiaomi products to the Android team to show off their functionality.
Barra re-entered the tech press limelight in December when he spoke at Le Web in Paris. His speech was, unsurprisingly, a celebration of the new corporation he joined. But it was, more broadly, a education for European and US techies on the wonders of the Chinese technology industry. Business Insider’s crib of his talk makes Barra sound like a latter-day Marco Polo, returning to Venice with tales of 600 million internet users, 15% annual growth rates and billion dollar IPOs.
Hugo Barra at his favorite dumpling joint in Beijing
On the rare occasions American geeks think about the internet in China, they tend to think about the Great Firewall and the 50 Cent Party. This focus on censorship – which is an important fact of life on the Chinese internet – tends to blind Americans to the creativity and vitality of the Chinese internet. (This 2010 article by David Talbot for Technology Review, China’s Internet Paradox, explores this idea in depth.) As a result, we are surprised to learn that China’s most popular social networking site, QZone, has over 600 million users. That Jingdong, an Amazon-like online store offers three hour delivery in major Chinese cities. That tools like WeChat and MoMo offer functionality that’s surprisingly different from social networking models offered by most American and European social networking tools.
I used the story of Barra and his reports from China to open a recent talk on Rewire at Harvard’s Coop. Our surprise that there’s a thriving and interesting tech industry in China strikes me as a symptom of a larger phenomenon, the ways in which we are insulated from information from places that are culturally distant, even if we’re tightly tied to those nations in terms of migration and trade.
I give dozens of examples in Rewire of ways in which barriers of language, culture and interest keep us from learning about what’s happening in other parts of the world. But the lack of knowledge of Chinese internet tools is a wonderful example I wish I’d included. QZone, with over 600 million users, is represented in the English-language Wikipedia with a 3k stub, while Twitter, with a slightly smaller userbase, has a massive, 140kb article whose table of contents is longer than the QZone entry.
When I speak about Rewire, I try to explain why I think it’s important that increased internet connectivity doesn’t inevitably lead to increased interest in or understanding of other cultures. I talk about the challenge of solving massive international problems like global warming without international cooperation, or the missed opportunities to think creatively by maximizing cognitive diversity and approaching problems from different points of view.
But Hugo Barra’s story offers a much more straightforward motivation: there’s a ton of opportunity in China’s tech industry and Americans and Europeans will be shut out of that opportunity if they’re not aware of what’s going on. Americans may not be especially interested in building tools for Chinese users, but Chinese companies are looking aggressively at overseas markets. Xiaomi recruited Barra precisely because they are excited about expanding beyond manufacturing phones for Chinese markets.
There’s a massive information asymmetry because the US and China right now. Teams of volunteer translators work to render US and European political and tech media into Chinese – one community, Yeeyan, features more than 100,000 registered translators. Other teams work to subtitle US television programming in Chinese within 12 hours of broadcast. Information in the other direction is brokered by small, underfunded, hardworking projects like Tea Leaf Nation, which provide great translation and contextualization of Chinese stories for the small audiences interested in them.
Perhaps Barra’s celebration of Chinese internet culture will inspire others to follow his lead and work with Chinese technology companies. Perhaps others will learn what’s exciting about the tech industry in Brazil or Kenya. At the very least, Barra’s story might remind us that there’s a huge world out there we don’t hear enough about and that it takes work on our part to learn more.
A Guinness ad featuring a group of splendidly-dressed men from Congo-Brazzaville, called Le Sapeurs, is making a splash online. The men in the ad (below) are members of Le Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, a group of middle class Congolese in both Congo-Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of Congo, who collect, assemble and model sharp, colorful suits that evoke Parisian fashions of decades ago. The message of the Guinness ad comes in the opening line of the voiceover: “In life, you cannot always choose what you do, but you can always choose who you are.” You may carry bricks or paint car parts for a living, but you can choose a life where, for some hours of the week, you are a fashion icon and a hero to your neighborhood.
AdWeek featured the ad, and an accompanying documentary, as their ad of the day, noting “When global marketers portray Africa, the goal is usually humor or pity. Rarely do brands treat Africans as cultural equals, much less as inspirational role models.” The BBC, Slate and The Guardian have all commented on the video, most noting that it’s surprising to see an affirmative, inspirational African narratives that actually features Africans as the main subject (as opposed to, say, GoToMeeting’s “Kenya Water Project”, in which hip, wired young people across the world – none in Africa – get together to “save” a distant other.)
This ad follows another striking Guinness ad, in which a spirited game of wheelchair basketball is revealed to include one wheelchair-bound player and five players without disability, who are learning to play wheelchair basketball as a way of spending time with their friend. The video has drawn praise for being heartwarming and compelling, and critique for being patronizing to the disabled and for not correcting a more general problem, the invisibility of the disabled in advertising except as props to demonstrate the moral courage of others. I found the ad more moving than manipulative, but then again, I spend far more time thinking about media portrayals of Africans than I do about media portrayals of the wheelchair-bound, so I’m far less attuned to the critiques the commenters raise.
I’ve been thinking about possible critiques of the Guinness Sapeurs ad and have come up with three thus far. One is that Guinness is pretty late to the game in featuring Les Sapeurs. Spanish photographer Héctor Mediavilla released a striking set of photos of Sapeurs in Brazzaville in 2003 (see also this collection), and Daniele Tamagni published a beautiful photo book of Sapeurs in 2009. Sapeurs came to mainstream attention last year when Solange Knowles featured several Congolese sapeurs in the video for her song “Losing You”. And news outlets including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, NPR and others have examined sape from the perspectives of dandyism, the sapeur disapora in France, the cost of being a sapeur, and the contrast between the flair of the sapeurs and the stark nature of their surroundings.
Solange Knowles, “Losing You”
These last points – the cost of being a sapeur in an extremely poor country – is the core of another critique of the Guinness ad, and of sape more generally. At its heart, sape is a consumerist movement, where the creativity involved is in the hustle to assemble expensive outfits by having them sent from family abroad, or by borrowing clothes from other sapeurs. Stephanie McCrummen’s feature on sape in Kinshasa focuses heavily on an apparent obsession with the authenticity of the clothes and their expense. Is sape just a more elegant obsession with bling, a form of posturing that focuses primarily on the cost and inaccessibility of objects rather than a deeper form of creativity? Is there something perverse about wearing a pair of alligator shoes that cost half the per capita income of a nation?
A third critique would note that Africans often get credit for style and fashion, but rarely for weightier pursuits. It’s not especially radical to acknowledge the color and creativity of African music, art, and fashion, but would be far more exciting to see Guinness celebrating the startup culture of the iHub or the new model of African universities emerging at Ashesi University.
All that said, I think Guinness is trying to do the right thing in trying to offer a surprising and different picture of central Africa to viewers who likely associate the region with conflict, if with anything at all. The opening shot of the Guinness ad shows a field on fire, which immediately made me brace myself for an all-too-typical narrative of Africa in conflict. The ad pivots within the first second, showing us the burning of a sugarcane field as an example of the quotidian labor the sapeurs engage in, a set up for their transformation from laborers to fashion plates. It works – for me, at least – because it acknowledges what we expect to see about Brazzaville, then shows us something unexpected, surprising and inspiring.
Trailer for Michael Power ad, “Critical Assignment”
It’s worth contrasting this ad from Guinness with a previous campaign, which centered on an African superhero, Michael Power. Power – played by a Jamaican who was raised in Britain – was a James Bond figure, always righting wrongs committed by corrupt politicians and their foreign backers, and relaxing at the end of a hard campaign with the damsel he rescued and a bottle of Guinness. The campaign was enormously successful on the continent, but virtually impossible to imagine running in other global markets. By contrast, the Sapeurs ad was intended for the UK market, but could easily run on the continent, and features a form of actual African superheroes, not an imaginary one.
In “Rewire“, I talk about the importance of culture as a pathway towards understanding the history, politics and challenges of unfamiliar people and places. My student, Catherine d’Ignazio, is exploring this idea in her project Terra Incognita, which allows you to monitor where in the world you encounter through your web browser and get introductions to unfamiliar countries. Catherine talks about the importance of “seducing” a reader to pay attention to a topic she’s not already interested in, offering images, video, maps and compelling narrative to capture attention to the unfamiliar.
I found myself seduced by Guinness’s ad into spending a chunk of my day learning about the political and cultural significance of sape, which included a dive into the history of Congo-Brazzaville’s civil war, and into Mobutu Sese Seko’s drive for “Authenticité“, or the Zairianization of the current Democratic Republic of the Congo.
As As Joshua Keating notes in his piece for Slate, sape is, in part, a reaction to Mobutu’s attempts to cleanse Congo of colonial influence. Authenticité involved replacing colonial names with indigenous ones, and banning western suits and ties in favor of the abacost (short for “à bas le costume”, French for “down with the suit”), a local variant of the Mao suit. As Mobutu and his corrupt cronies lost popularity, wearing western fashion became a form of rebellion. Soukous musician Papa Wemba became the leader of this rebel faction, proudly wearing French fashions purchased on his international travels and advertising the labels in interviews and in his songs. The contrast between Mobutu’s ban on western fashion and the embrace of the sapeur movement by the nation’s most popular musician helped expose the dissatisfaction of ordinary Zairians with Mobutu’s one man rule. (I’m thankful to wikipedia Skomorokh, whose contribution to the Sapeur article has somehow not been incorporated to the main article, which is, unfortunately, pretty weak. Skomorokh points to sapeur as a form of rebellion, linking to James Brooke’s 1988 article on sapeurs in the New York Times.)
I’d not expected to spend today thinking about cultural rebellion against autocrats, but then again, I’d also not expected a global beverage company to promote Congolese culture to UK beer drinkers. Perhaps the admen and women at BBDO took their own script seriously: In life, you cannot always choose what you do, but you can always choose who you are. I’m glad Guinness has chosen to be a brand that’s trying to feature what’s unique, wonderful and positive about Africa.
It’s not obvious from looking at me, but while I’m American, I’m deeply partisan towards the nation of Ghana. I moved to Accra, Ghana in 1993 to study xylophone music, and I’ve traveled back to the country almost every year since 2000. I ran a nonprofit organization in Ghana from 1999-2004 and I now work closely with a Ghanaian journalism nonprofit. This dual allegiance is a good thing: I have two teams to root for in the upcoming World Cup (unfortunately, they’ll see each other in the first round), and I take disproportionate pride in Ghana’s economic and political success over the past two decades.
Ghana has a lot to be proud of, in political terms. After almost twenty years of rule by a man who took power through a coup, Ghana democratically elected a President from the opposition NPP party in 2000. After eight years of his rule, they elected a President from the NDC, which had ruled for the previous decades. Political scientists call this a “double alternation”, and it’s considered the gold standard for stability in a democracy, evidence that an electoral system is free and fair enough that either of two major parties can win an election. Due to its clean elections and history of stability, demonstrated when the death of President Atta Mills in office led to a seamless transition to his vice-president John Mahama, Ghana has become the exemplar for democratic transition in West Africa. Ghanaian politicians and NGOs are now working to export models and best practices from Ghana to the region and the continent.
But there’s something uncomfortable about Ghana’s elections. Many of the politicians from the NPP party come from a single ethnic group, the Akan or Ashanti, and their close allies. The NDC has a broader ethnic base of support, but the Ewe are particularly powerful within the party. You can see these alliances in a map of electoral results – the NPP candidate won in the Ashanti and Eastern regions, the home of the Akan, while the NDC won elsewhere, but dominated in the Volta region, where the Ewe hail from. Some critics worry that Ghana’s free and fair elections may be masking elections that are less about political issues and more about ethnic allegiances.
Economist Paul Collier warns of this problem in his book “Wars, Guns and Votes”, He warns that we may be seeing a lot of elections in the developing world that are free, fair and bad. They are free and fair because we’ve gotten very good at monitoring elections for obvious signs of rigging and fraud, but they’re bad because they are decided for reasons other than political issues. In bad elections, Collier argues, people vote for a candidate because they expect some personal financial gain (a job, a handout) or because they see an electoral victory as a victory for their tribe or group. A good election is one in which people vote for a candidate because they expect he or she will make positive policy changes, benefiting a broader community and the nation as a whole.
Free, fair and bad elections happen because it’s hard to hold politicians accountable. We elect politicians because we share their aspirations and visions, but we also elect them because we hope they will ensure that tax dollars are distributed fairly and ensure that our communities benefit from those investments in schools, hospitals, roads and other essential infrastructures. But in many countries, it’s very hard to find out whether our politicians are doing a good or poor job.
Sometimes politicians don’t do a good job because they are corrupt, more interested in their personal gain than serving their communities. In most cases, politicians work hard and their shortcomings are the result of being constrained by finances, thwarted by bureaucracy or otherwise held in check. If we had better ways of tracking what governments do in their communities and documenting the progress of taxpayer-funded projects, we would have far more information we could use to hold our politicians accountable, to re-elect the best and oust the worst. This means a strong, free press is important, as are efforts at government transparency, and systems to ensure access to government information, like freedom of information laws.
In other words, if we want strong, responsive democracies, we can’t just fix electoral systems – we have to fix monitorial systems. And we can’t just establish a culture of clean elections, as Ghana has done – we need a culture of monitorial citizenship.
The idea of monitorial citizenship is one I’ve borrowed from journalism scholar Michael Schudson. Schudson argues that we often understand democracy in terms of “informed citizenship” – our job as citizens is to be informed about the issues and to vote, then let our elected representatives do their jobs. This model became popular in the United States during the progressive era of the early 20th century, and Schudson worries that the model may be out of date, not accurately representing how most people participate in democracies today. One of the models Schudson suggests to describe our current reality is monitorial democracy, where a responsibility as citizens is to monitor what powerful institutions do (governments, corporations, universities and other large organizations) and demand change when they misbehave. The press is a powerful actor in monitorial democracies, as demonstrated during the Watergate scandal and the end of the Nixon presidency in the US. And new media may broaden the potential for monitorial democracy, allowing vastly more citizens to watch, document and share their reports.
This year, my students and I have been experimenting with projects that connect monitorial democracy with the mobile phone. We’ve conducted small experiments locally, monitoring the on-time performance of subway trains and wait times in post offices, and examined what sorts of infrastructures in our local community are built and maintained by different government and private sector actors. And now we’re heading to Belo Horizonte and São Paulo, Brazil for the next round of our experiments.
We’ll work with community organizations in neighborhoods in both cities to identify promises local governments have made that citizens see as high importance. We’ll work with these volunteers to map a few, carefully chosen, infrastructures in their communities and to track the status of those infrastructures over time. And we’ll work with the community to figure out how we should reward governments that live up to their promises and challenge governments that fall short… all within the course of two three-day, student led workshops. (!?!)
Our core insight – that citizens can use mobile phones to document infrastructure and monitor government performance – is not a new one. We are inspired by a number of exciting projects that have demonstrated the potential and pitfalls of citizen monitoring and documentation, notably:
- Map Kibera, which has demonstrated the importance of mapping squatter cities and informal settlements to show both the deficiencies and the vitality of infrastructure in those communities
- Ushahidi, which shows that mobile phones combined with mapping can help individuals work together to map crises and opportunities with little central planning
- Fix My Street and related projects, which have helped citizens see governments as service providers, responsible for maintaining infrastructures, and capable of providing customer service to citizens
- Safecast, which has encouraged Japanese citizens to monitor radiation levels in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, helping create data sets citizens can use to lobby the government for better cleanup plans and responses
- The Earth Institute’s collaboration with the Government of Nigeria, to use citizen enumerators, armed with mobile phones, to monitor schools, hospitals and other government-procured infrastructure to establish the country’s progress towards meeting Millenium Development goals
We hope to learn from these projects and push our work in a slightly different direction. Our system, Promise Tracker, starts from promises government officials (local, state and federal) have made to a community, and then helps communities track progress made on those promises by monitoring infrastructures like power grids, roads, schools and hospitals. The use case for Promise Tracker is simple: if the mayor of a city makes an electoral promise that roads in a neighborhood will be paved during her time in office, Promise Tracker helps the local community collect data on the condition of the roads and monitor progress made on the promise over time. If the mayor meets her goal, Promise Tracker offers proof generated by the community that’s benefitted. If the government is in danger of falling short, Promise Tracker offers an open, freely shared data set that citizens and officials can use to consult on solving the problem.
It’s this idea of tracking promises that has led us to Brazil. I spoke about the Promise Tracker idea at the Media Lab’s fall sponsors meeting and had two transformative conversations with Brazilians who heard me speak. One conversation was with Oded Grajew, a celebrated Brazilian social entrepreneur and innovator, one of the founders of the World Social Forum, and founder of Rede Nossa Sao Paulo, “Our Sao Paulo Network”, a network of community organizations dedicated to transforming and improving that remarkable city. One of Grajew’s many achievements is a successful campaign to get the city of São Paulo to change its constitution and require the mayor to publish campaign promises, allowing citizens to monitor the government’s progress. Grajew invited my students to São Paulo to meet with his organization and see whether the tools we’re building could help his organization keep a close eye on the government’s performance.
The second conversation was more surprising: it was with the government of the state of Minas Gerais, specifically from Andre Barrence, CEO at the Office for Strategic Priorities, who is in charge of innovation in government and the private sector. Minas Gerais is a sponsor of the Media Lab and has been looking for partnerships where Media Lab students and faculty can work with residents of Belo Horizonte and other Minas Gerais communities. It’s not easy for a government to volunteer to open itself to citizen monitoring, and it’s a great credit to the innovative leaders in the Minas Gerais government that they’ve been working hard to find community organizations we can partner with to monitor the government’s progress and enter into a partnership to celebrate successes and work to fix potential failures.
In our workshops in Belo Horizonte and São Paulo, my students – Jude Mwenda, Alexis Hope, Chelsea Barbaras, Heather Craig and Alex Gonçalves – will work with community leaders to understand what promises politicians have made to the community, to identify promises the community is most concerned about, and to identify promises we can evaluate my monitoring infrastructure over time. We’re using codesign methods promoted by our friend and colleague Sasha Costanza-Chock, trying to ensure that what we monitor is what the community cares about, and that we build the tools with the community, who will be responsible for using them over the next few months or years. Our short-term goal is to collect data on a couple of infrastructures in a community, leverage some of Rahul Bhargava’s work on community data visualization to help our partners present data, and to open a conversation with local authorities about tracking an infrastructure over time.
Our long-term ambitions are broader. We hope to build a tool that communities can customize to their own needs and campaigns, but which centers on the idea that mobile phones can collect photographic data, cryptographically stamp it with location information and a timestamp, and release it to public repositories under a CC0 license. We hope we’ll see groups around the world use the tool to track everything from road and power grid condition to air and water quality, integrating low-cost sensors into the system and asking citizens to engage in environmental data collection as well as civic monitoring.
The key idea behind the project is a simple one: civic engagement is too important to be something we do only at elections.
I’ve been writing and speaking about the recognition that many people feel alienated from existing political processes and like there’s no good path for them to engage in decisionmaking about their communities. This alienation leads to disengagement, and can lead to more dramatic forms of dissent, including public protest. The work I’m trying to do on effective citizenship focuses on the idea that we need to engage in citizenship more than once every four years… and also more often than we take to the streets in protest. It’s my hope that helping people monitor powerful institutions and evaluate the successes and setbacks of their elected representatives will be a way people can engage in citizenship every day.
I’m writing this post while enroute to Belo Horizonte, and I’ll share a report on what happened in our workshops and how this idea has changed as I fly home. I’ll also add more links once I have better connectivity. The really good stuff will likely come from the trip report my students put together – I’ll share that as soon as they share it with me.
The title comes from a post on Transom.org, the community newspaper of the Amerian public radio community, by Nate DiMeo. DiMeo is a brilliant freelance producer and the creator of “The Memory Palace”, a beautiful and bittersweet podcast about history and storytelling. At the end of an essay about the podcast and the financial struggles to support it, DiMeo offers this observation:
“Audio never goes viral.
There’s something much more intentional about choosing to listen to something than choosing to click on a video or article. If you posted the most incredible story—literally, the most incredible story that has ever been told since people have had the ability to tell stories, it will never, ever get as many hits as a video of a cat with a moustache.”
You can tell how maddening this is for DiMeo and for many other people creating innovative and important audio. We are in the midst of a moment of extreme creativity in the world of audio production. Podcasting has made it reasonably easy for a competent producer to share original audio with an audience of potentially millions, but generally, dozens, of listeners. Some of these podcasts are finding audiences on public radio through new distributors, like the Public Radio Exchange. But many aren’t. And while there are numerous stories of people who’ve become briefly, sometimes uncomfortably, famous through viral videos (a conference, ROFLCon, exists solely to examine the phenomenon of internet famous), there are very few examples of internet memes that are audio-only.
Alcorn examines this phenomenon structurally, considering the weaknesses in the audio ecosystem that make audio less likely to spread online than text or video. Audio is often something we encounter when we’re doing something else – driving, walking, working with our hands, cooking dinner. As a result, we’re less likely to remember to share that experience online. When we do share, we’re thwarted by the fact that audio is difficult to embed, tied up in different proprietary players. Unlike text, audio is hard to skim. And the “tastemakers” who are in the business of amplifying viral content don’t have a good source for potentially viral audio to audition and spread.
All these are good points. But I wonder if Alcorn and DiMeo are limiting the conversation by focusing on “going viral”. For DiMeo, the failure of audio to go viral is part of a larger phenomenon, that high-quality audio storytelling doesn’t receive the audience it deserves and that the small size of the audience means that it’s exceedingly hard to make a living. DiMeo, in his Transom piece, explains that he’s had book offers that didn’t pan out because he is insufficiently famous – “going viral”, which is a form of unexpected (and sometimes unwanted) fame is something that would be deeply helpful to his career.
But “going viral” is a phenomenon built on passing on content that requires little investment by the viewer. It takes a few seconds to realize that something interesting is going on in the “Harlem Shake”, and if that’s your thing, you might spend a few minutes more finding different versions of the video, perhaps going further to read critiques of the video or the appropriation of the song and dance. But the whole experience is no more than a glance.
Glance-based media is perfect for a world where we’re inundated with choices and forced to make up our mind very quickly. But, as Alcorn argues, it’s hard to glance at audio – by its very definition, audio takes time.
But that may be why audio is so important in a viral age.
The first assignment I ask my students in News and Participatory Media to complete is a media diary, tracking everything they read, watch and listen to over the course of a week. It’s a helpful assignment, shocking the career journalists into the realization that most college students never read print media. I ask students to track not only what mediums they encounter, but what kinds of stories, and to think about whether they were following up on existing interests or learning about new topics.
What’s been most surprising to me is that many participants list radio or podcasts where they get the most international news, and where they get the most unexpected and surprising news over the course of the week. Often, this is because people are listening when they’re doing other tasks. While DiMeo is concerned that it’s harder to get audiences to choose to listen rather than choose to watch or read, I’m seeing evidence that audio is most powerful when choice is not involved.
If you’re working with your hands or driving, there’s a high switching cost involved with being selective about radio or podcast programming – I have to be really uninterested in an NPR story to start searching around the airwaves for an alternative when I’m driving. As a result, I listen to far more stories on subjects I have no explicit interest in on the radio, and often, I discover that I’m interested in a topic I previously knew nothing about.
Radio is a serendipity engine precisely because it downplays choice. Had I turned off Morning Edition when I got bored with a story about the US auto industry, I never would have heard the story about the Ukranian protests that I hadn’t known I was interested in. Viral videos work because I choose to watch and choose to forward – radio works because I don’t choose, and because I’m rewarded for my lack of choice.
When I wrote about serendipity in Rewire, my friend David Weinberger wondered whether serendipity was simply a function of good writing: you end up reading lots of articles on topics you’re not explicitly interested in when you read The New Yorker or Granta. You’ve made the choice of the publication, but not of the content, and you’re along for the ride based on the quality of the writing. I think podcasts are like that – I frequently have no interest in the topics Roman Mars explores on 99% Invisible, but I value his storytelling, and I’m along for the ride.
I don’t think Nate DiMeo wants to be viral – I think he wants to be heard. There’s a need for media that creates serendipity, even if that need isn’t well understood and is far from well met by the market. Alcorn is right that we need to consider the environment for sharing audio, but I think we’d benefit from examining the ways people share long-form readings, a closer analogy to podcasts in the great battle for attention. Audio content would benefit greatly from Instapaper’s “read later” functionality, and from a Longreads that compiled great stories from live radio and podcasts for those who’ve got time to explore.
We need to find better ways of supporting long form media, media that encourages serendipity, media that asks that you give up some choice in exchange for unexpected discovery. We need ways for producers like DiMeo to find audiences who can support their work. But I would hate to see audio producers give up what they do well in search of virality. At its best, audio has a way of blindsiding you, of helping you discover that you are deeply invested in a story you thought you were only half listening to, of changing your life in a small, subtle way by introducing a stray and unexpected thought.
I read Alcorn’s piece in a burger joint in Portsmouth, New Hampshire last night, on Instapaper, on my phone. Walking back to the hotel, I decided to catch up on Nate DiMeo’s work on The Memory Palace and turned to an old episode on my phone, “Heard Once”. I’d heard it once before, but again, walking by the water with the wind whipping my scarf around, I was blindsided again. It’s a story about Jenny Lind, a musician I have never given more than a moment’s thought to, but the story is about so much more.
It’s eight minutes. It may never go viral, but it’s one of the best things I’ve ever heard. Please listen and see if it changes your life in a small way.