Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

When Being Happy is Political

The Atlantic was kind enough to run a lightly edited version of this post. I’m posting here after their publication so that this remains in my archives.


Pharrell Williams is a happy man, but he’s crying. He’s one of the most in-demand record producers in the world, and had a hand in the two hottest songs of 2013, “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk and “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke. While those songs were inescapable on radio and television last summer, Pharrell’s most recent hit, “Happy”, has taken a different path to prominence.

French director Yoann Lemoine and production team We Are From LA worked with Pharrell to create a unique video for “Happy”. The video is 24 hours long, and was shot all across Los Angeles, featuring dozens of celebrity cameos interspersed amongst shot after shot of people dancing happily. It took 11 days to shoot the video, though many of the shots were single takes. The video follows the course of the day in LA, with footage from dawn to dusk and through the night, with Pharrell appearing each hour.


The original “Happy” video

The video quickly spawned thousands of fan remakes, featuring workplaces, business schools, college dorms who are all happy. Faced with a viral hit, Pharrell’s label, Columbia Records/Sony Music, has turned a blind eye to possible copyright violations, and one can easily spend hours on YouTube flipping from one fanvid to the next.

There’s a special subcategory of these videos that I think of as “georemixes”. The georemix builds on the idea that the original “Happy” video is a love letter to Los Angeles, a portrait of the city’s architecture, landscapes, people and spirit, and moves the party to a new location. More than a thousand georemixes of “Happy” exist, and they portray happy people on all six continents.


Pharrell, on Oprah, crying over “Happy”

Pharrell is on Oprah, watching a compilation of these remixes that bring his song around the world, from Detroit to Dakar. In the 30 seconds of the video Oprah shows, we catch glimpses of happy Taiwanese women on a spa day, Icelanders dancing on a glacier and Londoners strutting with Big Ben in the background. Pharrell’s reaction is the one many of us have had to the remixes of his video: he cries for a long time, overwhelmed not only by his success but by the experience of watching a simple idea – film yourself being happy – as it spreads around the world.


“Happy” is not the first video that’s been georemixed. Last summer, I gave a talk at the MIT8 conference focused on remixes of PSY’s Gangnam Style and Baauer’s Harlem Shake. In researching these localized remixes, my students pointed me to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’s “Empire State of Mind”, remixed in remarkable fashion into “Newport State of Mind”, by comics M-J Delaney, Alex Warren and Terema Wainwright. (The parody was further parodied by Welsh rappers Goldie Looking Chain, who complained that the Newport parodiers lacked local knowledge and cred.)


The original “Empire State of Mind”


“Newport (Ymerodraeth State of Mind)”

The georemix dates back at least as early as 2005, when Lazy Sunday, produced by The Lonely Island (Saturday Night Live’s Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg) was remixed into parodies like Lazy Muncie, showing midwest pride, and Lazy Ramadi, which replaces a search for cupcakes with a confrontation with Iraqi insurgents.


Lazy Munzie


Lazy Ramadi

The Lazy Sunday georemix was born out of a mock East Coast/West Coast rap beef, which quickly set the tone for georemix videos. Each response is a retelling of the core story, transposed to a new location, bragging about local landmarks and habits. While the braggadocio in these remixes is pure parody, there’s a sense in which each of these videos makes a claim to share the stage with the original. YouTube’s related videos feature means that there’s a chance that some of the 2 billion viewers of PSY’s Gangnam Style video will encounter Zigi’s “Ghana Style”, a georemix that relocates Seoul to Accra and replaces PSY’s horse dance with Ghanaian Azonto. (And if not through YouTube, viewers may encounter Zigi through the hundreds of listicles that advertise “10 Best Gangnam Style Parodies”)


Zigi’s Azonto version of Gangnam Style

I think of the georemix as a claim to attention, a way of demanding part of the spotlight that shines on a popular video. It’s a very basic demand: accept that we’re part of this phenomenon, too. In remixing Gangnam Style, Zigi sends the message that Ghana has YouTube, is clued into global cultural trends, has its own distinct sound and dance style to share with the world, and can produce videos as technically proficient as anything coming from other corners of the world. To me, “Ghana Style” reads both as lighthearted celebration of a catchy tune that truly went global, and a political statement about a world where culture can spread from South Korea to Ghana to the US, not just from the US and Europe to the rest of the world.

Of course, the georemix can also be purely political. Ai Wei Wei’s Gangnam style, titled Grass Mud Horse Style, moves the dance into his studio in Beijing and is filmed almost entirely within the walls of that compound, alluding perhaps to the artist’s frequent arrests and detentions. (If the location doesn’t set the theme, his appearance a minute into the video, spinning handcuffs certainly does.) Other georemixes take on specific issues explicitly. Consider Dig Grave Style, a protest video made by students from China’s Henan province, in which dancers rise from the earth to protest the moving of graves from villages to open land for real estate development.


Dig Grave Style

Remixing a video is a shortcut to creating original content. The script is partially written – the creativity comes from changing the lyrics and the setting. The popularity of the Harlem Shake meme (which was georemixed around the world, and saw political georemixes in Tunis and Cairo) came in part from the extremely low levels of effort required to participate in the phenomenon – simply film people behaving in an ordinary way, then dancing like madmen in strange costumes and you’ve got your localized Harlem Shake.

“Happy” benefits from this low barrier to entry. There are Happy remixes that function as shot-by-shot remakes of the short, official Pharrell video, and there are vastly more that adopt the spirit of the video and transpose it to a local context.


Loïc Fontaine and Julie Fersing deserve much of the credit for the georemixes that made Pharrell cry, though neither has made a video. Fersing, an interior designer in Nantes, began collecting georemixes of “Happy”, searching YouTube to find new material. When she’d located 21 of the videos, she turned to her husband, Fontaine, who’d begun a career in website development nine months earlier. Together, they launched We Are Happy From, a portal that now hosts 1682 videos from 143 countries.

We Are Happy From front page

We Are Happy From front page

Once the site had attracted about 50 remixes, Fontaine contacted the We Are From LA production team, who gave the project their blessing. While Fontaine had not spoken to Pharrell when I interviewed him a month ago, he felt quite confident that the project was consistent with the artist’s wishes and would survive, pointing out that Sony had not taken action to remove the vast majority of remix and parody videos posted online. Indeed, the success of the song has likely had a great deal to do with the widespread participation online, giving “Happy” an online life and prominence that no amount of radio payola could provide. (Pharrell has embraced the notion of the georemix, urging people around the world to produce their versions of the video as part of a UN-sponsored International Day of Happiness.)

We Are Happy From is simply an index, pointing to videos hosted on YouTube, Daily Motion and other platforms. While the videos have a consistent look, usually opening with a black on yellow title screen (as Pharrell’s video does), Fontaine doesn’t provide any production help or guidelines. Still, the videomakers are clearly conscious of We Are Happy From’s role in promoting “Happy” videos as a global form, as many videos feature a screencap of the We Are Happy From map.

While anyone can submit a video to We Are Happy From, not all videos appear on the map. Fersing is the curator, and she watches all videos before adding them to the map. (As of April, the couple were receiving 20-40 videos a day.) Videos that are overly commercial or connected to political or social causes don’t make the cut. Fontaine explained that some French political parties produced Happy videos as campaign materials – We Are Happy From chose not to feature those videos. An Italian version of Happy with an environmental message was also not included, nor was Porto (un)Happy, which features activists dancing through unfinished construction sites in Porto Allegre, Brazil, along with subtitles that critique government spending on public works projects. (Manaus is unhappy as well.)

I asked Fontaine why he and his wife had chosen to become active curators of the project. It was a practical decision, Fontaine explained: “They say it’s black, someone else says it’s white. How am I to judge?” Rather than evaluating the validity of political claims, he would rather focus on what he sees as the core message of these remixes: “We Are Happy From is purely about the happiness. We just want to show a simple message about being happy about where we live.”

For me, as a student of civic media, the dissident videos excluded from the We Are Happy Map are the most interesting ones. Fontaine has kindly shared the list of rejected videos with me, and I hope to spend some time this summer watching those 500 remixes in the hopes of developing an understanding of how “Happy” can work as a script for advocacy (or how videomakers think it might act as that script.) But for Fontaine and his wife, the mark of success wasn’t raising awareness for a cause or an issue – it was documenting the spread of happiness globally. When I interviewed Fontaine, he was celebrating the spread of “Happy” to Antarctica, with a video from French research station Dumont d’Urville.


The 1600 videos on We Are Happy From may not advocate for a political party or a cause, but they are “political”. When the residents of Toliara, Madagascar make their version of “Happy”, they’re making a statement that they’re part of the same media environment, part of the same culture, part of the same world as Pharrell’s LA. This assertion isn’t quite as anodyne as Disney’s “Small World After All” or the “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” campaign. Even with Fontaine and Fersing’s curation, we get distinct glimpses of how different it can be to be happy in different corners of the world: Happy in Damman, Saudi Arabia features wonderfully goofy men, but not a single woman. Beijing is happy, but profoundly crowded and hazy – intentionally or not, the video is a statement about air pollution as well as about a modern, cosmopolitan city.

A few weeks ago, We Are Happy From added a video from Tehran, Iran to the map. If you don’t know where the video is from, it’s unremarkable. A dozen twenty-somethings, men and women, dance on a rooftop, wear silly outfits, and wave their legs while lying on a bed. It’s remarkable only if you know that women in Iran are forbidden to appear in public without their hair covered and that men and women are prohibited from dancing together in public.


Happy in Tehran

Given context, the video is an incredibly brave statement. The young women in the video covered their own hair with wigs, keeping themselves technically in line with local Islamic law, and kept clothing around so they could cover up if seen from neighboring buildings. One of the videos stars, identified only as Neda, said, “We were really afraid. Whenever somebody looked out of a window or someone passed by, we ducked behind a door to make sure we were not seen.”


The makers of the video, forced to apologize on state television

Neda and her compatriots were right to be afraid. Six people involved with making the video were arrested and forced to appear on state television, testifying that they were tricked and duped into making the video. It is unclear what consequences the filmmakers will suffer beyond public humiliation, and a hashtag, #FreeHappyIranians is emerging to protest their detention. Pharrell, to his credit, has tried to call attention to the situation:

It’s clear from Neda’s interview with Iran Wire that the intention behind the video is precisely Fontaine and Fersing’s intention. ““We wanted to tell the world that the Iranian capital is full of lively young people and change the harsh and rough image that the world sees on the news.” They chose a middle-class Tehran home to make the point that ordinary Iranians, not just the elite, were happy, creative, modern and globally engaged. And the video, with subtitles and credits in English, was clearly created for a global audience, designed to be part of the International Day of Happiness, though it was turned in too late for inclusion: “We want to tell the world that Iran is a better place than what they think it is. Despite all the pressures and limitations, young people are joyful and want to make the situation better. They know how to have fun, like the rest of the world.”

Perhaps a video that asserts that you and your friends are part of the wider world is political only if your nation has consciously withdrawn from that world. Perhaps it’s political any time your city, your country and your culture are misunderstood or ignored by the rest of the world. We Are Happy From is cultural politics in the best sense of the word, a good-natured assertion that what brings us together is more important than what divides us. That the Tehran video has led Pharrell to a different type of tears is a reminder of how powerful and threatening this sort of statement can be.


Monithon and Monitorial Citizenship in Italy

Three years into my time at MIT, I’m trying to get back into the habit of blogging, something that was a near-daily habit for me during the years I was at Berkman. For me, blogging is a fairly selfish activity. If I write something helpful for you, that’s a happy accident. I write because it allows me to get ideas straight in my head, and because it helps me find other people working on similar problems.

In “The Power of Pull”, John Hagel and John Seely Brown argue that in information-saturated societies, one way to navigate information overload is to pull resources and people towards you, announcing the connections you need and drawing them towards you. It sounds both new-agey and privileged, and it’s a strategy that is surely easier to implement if you are in a position of power and authority where you can expect to be heard when you ask for help. But it’s also a strategy that often works, and in surprising and unexpected ways.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the idea of monitorial citizenship and the work my students and I are doing on the topic in Brazil, where we are prototyping our Promise Tracker tool. Luigi Reggi, co-founder of Monithon, an Italian citizen monitoring project, read the article and contacted me, and two weeks ago, we met in Perugia, where we were both attending the International Journalism Festival.

The Monithon team shows off their website in a cafe in Perugia

The Monithon team shows off their website in a cafe in Perugia

The name “Monithon” is a contraction of “Monitoring Marathon”, a working method Reggi and colleagues were demonstrating in Perugia. They’d assembled a small group of concerned citizens and taught them how to identify a local project supported through EU funds and how to evaluate its success. In Perugia, the team examined a web portal that allowed citizens to compare the performance of local internet service providers. While the tool worked reasonably well, fewer than a hundred people had used it in the year it was online, leading the monitors to conclude that it was a partial success, at best, as a use of EU funds. They posted a detailed report, which included suggestions for ways the project could be improved. The report is accessible on the Monithon site and linked to an map of the country (made using Ushahidi), which shows all completed monitoring efforts.

Reggi and colleagues found the project in Perugia through OpenCoesione, a government-initiated open data portal that (quite beautifully) visualizes spending of €99 billion on over 700,000 projects in Italy. Reggi works for the ministry of development and cohesion, which oversees these funds, and while he believes every country will end up building transparency sites like OpenCoesione, he also believes that open data is not enough. With a small team of dedicated volunteers, entirely outside of his time working for the government, Reggi is building a method that will allow citizens to evaluate each of the projects paid for with EU funds.

Open Cohesion website

Open Cohesion website

Some of the projects are carried out by the Monithon core team. Two team members from Bari have been monitoring projects associated with a new train that connects the center city and the airport, identifying issues with the train’s timetable that makes it difficult for commuters to use. Other projects are carried out by established citizen groups, like Libera, a national anti-Mafia association, who became Monithon’s partner in Naples, focusing their monitoring on the rehabilitation of seized Mafia properties. In Palermo, an existing group of transport activists are using the Monithon methodology, while in Calabria and Tornio, new groups have formed to begin monitoring projects using the Monithon method.

This is one of the similarities I see between the work Monithon is doing and work we’re hoping to do in São Paulo: partnership with existing civic groups. Our partner in São Paulo on Promise Tracker is Rede Nossa São Paulo, a network of existing citizen organizations who focus on tackling a wide range of local civic issues. We believe citizens will be most effective in monitoring issues they already care and know about, so we’re trying to help existing citizen groups find promises Mayor Haddad has made that are in their areas of interest and expertise, hoping we’ll identify groups eventually willing to take on the government’s 123 promises.

Monithon map of completed projects, and the Umarell

Monithon map of completed projects, and the Umarell

Another alignment is around the concept of monitory citizenship. The Monithon team is shaping their work around the broader idea of monitoring as a form of participatory citizenship. Their logo features an Umarell, an affectionate term from Bologna to describe older men who spend their time watching – and commenting on – public works and other activities in their communities. Embracing the idea of the good-natured, loveable busybody, part of Monithon’s goal is to train new generations of monitors, more digitally-connected than the umarells, but motivated by the same mix of curiosity and public interest.

The ministry of development and cohesion is helping bring new monitors into the mix through the Open Cohesion School (A Scuola di OpenCoesione), which offers five lessons on monitoring projects using the open data released by Reggi’s ministry. Using resources from the school school and through Monithon, Reggi and colleagues are now working with 17 year old high school students to identify and monitor local projects, contributing to the data set and helping the students understand the processes behind the EU funds, their dispersal and their impacts on local communities. High school students are often a major part of the teams who show up at “open data days”, which have drawn as many as 250 to come work together on monitoring projects.

I think the decision to work with high school students is a stroke of genius, and hope that funders will take note and support this aspect of the work in particular. (For now, the project is completely volunteer-driven and has no financial support. Reggi jokes that he may try to support it by selling t-shirts or other umarell-branded merchandise.) Part of my interest in this space is around a question my colleague Erhardt Graeff is interested in: how should we teach civics in a digital age to high school students? Teaching them to identify government projects in their communities and evaluate their success looks like a pretty good start.

I also suspect that a surprising outcome of these monitoring efforts may be increased enthusiasm for EU spending. It’s easy to condemn government spending in the abstract – it’s possible that examining projects and finding them sometimes flawed, but well intended, may lead to more nuanced debate about EU cohesion funds and support for the European Parliament more broadly.

Antonella Napolitano interviewed me and Reggi about Monithon in Perugia, and rightly asked whether citizen monitoring is becoming a mainstream phenomenon. Reggi was clear that it’s not yet – the people involved with Monithon are clearly civics geeks and the folks they’ve been able to bring into the cause. But it’s possible that the Monithon method could bring hundreds or thousands more volunteers to the table.

As I learn more about the citizen monitoring space, I’m finding other inspiring projects like Social Cops, an Indian social monitoring project, that’s brought thousands of participants into projects like monitoring garbage pickup using mobile phones. While Monithon focuses on single projects and on suggesting solutions to imperfect projects, Social Cops leverages network effects, using hundreds or thousands of reports to identify systems that aren’t working well and demanding accountability. I suspect there’s a sweet spot for projects that both leverages networks and asks people to solve problems, not just collect data.


Two talks, no waiting

It was a great honor to win the Zocalo Public Square book prize for Rewire… and I’ve understood the honor more deeply as I’ve gotten to know the thoughtful work the Zocalo crew puts together every day on their site and their newswire. They’re doing important work sharing stories about connections between people in the physical and virtual worlds, opening conversations about how we want our communities to work, and bringing people together for events and conversations.

Speaking at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art last Friday gave me the personal experience of worlds coming together. Friends from different corners of my life came out to see me – classmates from Williams, former volunteers from my Geekcorps days, friends from the internet and social change community and the internet studies world, and wonderfully, a friend I’d not seen since 1988 when we spent a high school summer together at Cornell at a program of the Telluride Association.

Maybe it was Zocalo’s kindness – they published an excerpt of my book, reactions to some of the questions I address from other scholars, as well as inviting me to speak – or the incredible warmth of old friends in the room, but I had a terrific time introducing the book and answering questions about Rewire and the research that surrounds it. Zocalo offers a video of the talk – embedded above – as well as a podcast, should you wish to listen without the uncomfortable sight of me in a suit for 50 minutes. Or you could read their excellent summary of the talk and following Q&A. I believe, at some point, they’ll be publishing a “green room” Q&A with me, which includes me discussing strategies for self-defense in the case of zombie attack.

A few weeks earlier, I had the chance to consider some of the questions I address in Rewire from a different perspective. Colleagues Rodrigo Davies, Helena Puig Larrauri and others organized the Build Peace Summit at the MIT Media Lab, an event that explored ways in which technology might allow people to approach long-standing conflicts and build peace using technology. My talk there was somewhat skeptical, given some of the challenges I’ve seen using web technologies to insulate ourselves instead of building connections. Skepticism aside, I looked for a few hopeful examples I’ve seen of people confronting hateful speech in online spaces and building connections across cultural barriers. That talk is newly online as well, embedded below, for anyone who really needs a double dose of my public speaking this weekend. (If you’re a member of that set, allow me to suggest that there are many better things you could be doing with your life.)

Thanks to the hosts at both events.


Brief glimpses of other lives

It’s nearing a year since my book, Rewire, was published. I’m thrilled that some critics have liked it, and that it’s had some recognition, notably from the lovely folks at Zocalo, who are hosting me at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art this evening to speak about the book. Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking about Rewire with Italian journalists and activists at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, where friends Luca diBiase and Jillian York were kind enough to share the stage with me and discuss the potentials and limitations of digital cosmopolitanism and the ways in which the internet does and doesn’t connect our conversations.

Follow Bias
Follow Bias

The most satisfying outcome of the book, though, has been working with colleagues to build new tools that might help us break out of our cognitive bubbles and experience a wider world. Last year, Nathan Matias and Sarah Szalavitz developed a tool called Follow Bias that examines who you follow on Twitter and offers a simple overview in terms of men, women and brand and bots. If, like me, you discover you’re following a lot more men than women, Follow Bias can act as an encouragement to broaden your horizons and find new, remarkable women to follow.

I showed the tool to Hanan Meguid, an Egyptian tech entrepreneur, the other day and she immediately tweeted me to alert me that she was a remarkable woman I should be following. And now I am.

Follow Bias includes a basic recommendation engine, suggesting women other users recommend I follow, and alerting me that I’d need to follow 93 women to raise my personal statistics by 5%. It’s not hard to imagine a version of the tool that’s expanded so it helps you see and address geographic or other biases in who you’re paying attention to on Twitter.

Catherine d’Ignazio’s Terra Incognita tracks geography, not gender. If you’re a lucky alpha tester of the tool, Terra Incognita lives in your Chrome browser and keeps track of what news stories you read and what cities are mentioned in them. When you open a new tab in Chrome, you’re greeted with the map of a city you’ve not read about and suggestions for articles you might read about the city. There’s a game layer to the system – you can gain credit for reading the most articles about a city, or for suggesting the best reading for that city.

Screen Shot 2014-05-09 at 2.37.03 PM

Part of the challenge of building Terra Incognita has been finding appropriate, engaging readings associated with a thousand global cities. (Each UN member nation is represented by at least one city, even if it’s tiny. After that, the list includes cities with urban populations of over 100,000 or so.) It’s one thing to catch a glimpse of a city on a map, and something significantly more complicated to find a reading that offers an introduction to what makes a city unique and worth knowing about.

Since Catherine began working on this project, my attention has been drawn to projects that give you a glimpse of what life looks like in an unfamiliar part of the world. Part of what makes Terra Incognita such a beautiful system is that (once you’ve installed it), it offers you a glimpse of somewhere unfamiliar every time you open a web browser. These invitations to wander, I think, are all too absent from a vision of the Internet that’s often obsessed with efficiency, with giving you exactly what you want, when you want it.

Screen Shot 2014-05-09 at 2.10.46 PM

My friend Kevin Slavin and his students have been working on a poetic and beautiful project based around the idea of multiple, sustained glimpses of another person’s life. 20 Day Stranger is a mobile phone application that matches you with a geographically different stranger. For twenty days, you and your partner catch glimpses of each other’s life, photos selected from Flickr and Foursquare that illustrate places you’ve been near, without revealing your exact location. The ap tells your partner when you’re moving or still to provide context, but offers no interaction with your partner until the end of the 20 days, at which point you have an opportunity to send a single message. Kevin’s partner on the project is the Dalai Lama Center on Ethics and Transformative Values, suggesting that there’s a deep significance to watching – and, perhaps, caring – about someone from afar.

The notion of offering a glimpse into another part of the world is not a new one: “video wormholes” are continually open videoconferencing channels that attempt to link distant offices or workspaces, allowing casual interaction between people who work together but would rarely meet in the halls. There’s one in the corner of MIT’s State Center, connecting a lunchroom there to one at Stanford. I’d love to do a project that connects similar but distant locations across languages and cultures – a KFC in Canton, Ohio with one in Guangzhou. But I suspect some of the most effective tools for unexpected encounters with a wide world are inadvertent.

I heard about Larry Larson’s 4’33″ ap on TLDR, On the Media’s short-form net culture podcast. (I’ve been publicly revealed as a podcast addict this week, so there’s no reason to keep hiding my habit.) 4’33″, of course, is John Cage’s most famous composition, a piece of music where the sound is the “silence” of the performance venue, which is far from silent (as all spaces are.) The 4’33″ ap invites users to record a performance of 4’33″ in their own space and upload the results.

Screen Shot 2014-05-09 at 2.26.41 PM
A map of 4’33″ silences. No silence in Africa? Or no one willing to pay $0.99 for silence?

The 4’33″ ap site features a map of recordings, each a 4’33″ snippet of silence… which often turns out to be the fascinating and intricate background noise from a different corner of the world. (You need to purchase the $0.99 ap to enjoy the silence. Yes, it was all I ever wanted, all I ever needed.) It feels a bit odd to assemble a playlist of silences, but the net effect is a much quieter version of exploring We Are Happy From, the remarkable collection of georemixes of Pharrell’s “Happy”.

I’m a country mouse: the only city I’ve ever lived in is Accra, and that was twenty years ago. I’ve never developed the big city habits of averting my eyes from an unblinded window. When I stay in big city highrises, I inadvertently end up staring into other people’s living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms. I think we need ways to catch glimpses of each others’ lives, locally and around the world, that somehow balance the power of serendipitous connection and protection from the creepiness of voyeurism. I’m glad smart people are working on the problem.


Water monitoring in China, and the changing role of citizenship

This January, a few hundred employees of Alibaba, the massive online retailer and digital payments company, participated in an interesting experiment. Like many Chinese, they traveled home to celebrate the Lunar New Year. While at home, they used inexpensive water testing kits to sample water in their villages and uploaded their findings via smartphone to an environmental mapping website, Danger Maps. Employees measured water quality in 420 locations across 28 provinces, testing open bodies of water as well as sources of drinking water.

The experiment was a trial run for a much more ambitious rollout, announced this week. Jack Ma, Alibaba’s billionaire founder, announced that water testing kits would be sold through Taobao for between 65-80 yuan ($10-13) and invited the public to join his employees in becoming water quality monitors. Yang Fangyi, one of the managers of the Alibaba Foundation, explained that by mapping areas of poor water quality, the Foundation can work with local environmental authorities and NGOs to work on cleanup plans.

watermap
Test results posted to water.epmap.org

Environmental degradation is one of the most serious problems facing China. A report from the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning suggests that China lost 3.5% of the nation’s GDP in environmental damages in 2010. Air pollution contributed to 1.2 million deaths in 2010, and journalists have compared Beijing’s air quality (unfavorably) to that in airport smoking lounges and industrial London on the most polluted days of the mid-20th century. Maintaining and improving air and water quality while continuing to rapidly industrialize are huge challenges for the country. Environmental issues are also an area where the Chinese government has been comparatively open about discussing problems and seeking international cooperation; Premier Li Keqiang addressed environmental problems in his address to the National People’s Congress last month, and US organizations that work with China report that it’s far easier to cooperate on environmental issues than on more sensitive issues like human rights or worker safety.

textkitpackaging

testkitcontents
The kit, and its contents

The little blue kit, manufactured by Greenovation Hub, may test China’s openness around environmental advocacy. Inside are tests for ph, Phosphates, Ammonia, Chemical Oxygen Demand (used to indirectly measure organic contaminants in water), and for five heavy metals, including cadmium and zinc. It’s more home chemistry lab than slick, sophisticated sensors – you’ll be dipping litmus paper into a stream and measuring the color that results, then entering the data into your phone if you participate in the project.

It’s unclear how many of Alibaba’s 500 million customers will purchase water quality kits and start uploading data to Danger Maps. Even if only a few participate, the implications could be very interesting. Land use issues are a major civic flashpoint in China. If farmers are able to document damage to the local watershed from a new factory, for instance, it might change the dialog, bringing nascent environmental watchdog organizations and government departments into the debate over land use.

Groups like Public Lab in the US and Safecast in Japan have been using crowdsourcing models to document environmental issues, monitoring water quality and radiation levels. Their work raises questions of whether we want citizens to be cooperative sensors, or citizen scientists. The latter is a high bar to cross – we need citizens not only to collect data but to formulate and test hypotheses. What we gain in exposing participants to the scientific process, we may lose in terms of data quality and believability. Safecast has traded accessibility for accuracy – their bGeigie geiger counter is pretty expensive in kit form, but is a lab-quality instrument, which allows Safecast to use the data collected to engage the Japanese government in dialog about post-Fukushima reconstruction. On the other hand, using a Safecast counter, it’s easy to feel like your job is simply that of a data collector, not someone figuring out the complex puzzle of when towns and villages will be safe to inhabit. (Safecast describes itself as a global sensor network, acknowledging that it’s strength is data collection, not the broader issue of citizen science.)

There’s a balance between accessible sensors, high-quality data and the ability for users to formulate and test hypotheses that crowdsensing projects need to wrestle with going forward – based on some of the results thus far, it seems like the Greenovation kit favors access over accuracy. (I suspect there’s not really that much standing water in China at ph10, despite reports on the map.) But it’s possible that communities affected by industrial pollution might purchase multiple sensors, organize testing plans and oversampling to improve accuracy. They might also look for sources of industrial runoff and test hypotheses about how industrial development is affecting their community. Consider a project from CMU called CATTFish. It’s a water monitor that sits in your toilet tank and measures temperature and conductivity to sense possible changes in groundwater quality. It’s designed for communities concerned about pollution from hydrofracking – with high quality, regularly updated data from multiple homes, a community could have an early warning system for detecting potential ill-effects from oil extraction. (h/t to Heather Craig, who introduced me to the project.)

I think there’s another subtle change we should watch for as well. Environmental crowdsensing is a form of monitorial citizenship, an idea we’ve been discussing a lot lately at Center for Civic Media. John Keane uses the term to describe the non-governmental and civic organizations that act as watchdogs, keeping governments honest and, sometimes, in check. Inspired in part by David Ronfeldt’s work on tribes, institutions, markets and networks, we’ve been looking at ways networked individuals can have similar monitorial power. The work we’re starting with Promise Tracker begins with asking citizens to monitor issues in their communities using mobile phones and will likely expand to asking citizens to use sensors to monitor water and air quality.

In our experiments with Promise Tracker in São Paulo and Belo Horizonte, using mobile phones to document community problems and governmental and community responses to them, we quickly learned that many people don’t just want to collect data – they want to use data to tell stories and to advocate for change. Will citizens become sensors or scientists? Participants or activists? This may also have a lot to do with whether Greenovation Hub wants to build a business model or a movement, and whether a powerful, visible figure like Jack Ma is willing to have Alibaba become the nexus of an emerging environmental movement. That might be more potent and less dangerous than having individual groups organize to address water quality issues on a small scale and face potential backlash from local authorities.

I’m interested in monitorial citizenship because I see monitoring powerful institutions – commercial, governmental and otherwise – as something one can do every day as a citizen. Elections come around every few years and get all the attention, but it’s possible that the real power of citizenship comes from the monitoring that takes place between the elections. In a Chinese context, where power doesn’t come through electoral mechanisms, monitorial citizenship may have even more power – it may be a more genuine, authentic, believable path to political power than others available to most Chinese citizens.


Susan Benesch on dangerous speech and counterspeech

Susan Benesch is one of the leading thinkers on countering hate speech online. She’s a fellow at the Berkman Center this year, and I’m terribly sorry to be missing her talk at Berkman this afternoon. (Instead, I’m watching from home so I can be primary caretaker for my son for a couple of weeks while Rachel gets to travel.) She teaches international human rights at American University and is the founder of the Dangerous Speech Project, which tries to understand the spread of speech that incites people to violence.

Susan’s talk is available online and I’ve tried to blog it remotely while cursing my inability to teleport across the state. The talk is wonderfully titled “Troll Wrastling for Beginners: Data-Driven Methods to Decrease Hatred Online”. Unlike most conventional online wisdom, Benesch believes you should engage with the trolls, in part because it may be the most successful path to countering dangerous speech. The approaches states have taken to dangerous speech – punishment and censorship – don’t work very well, and some evidence suggests that they work even worse online than offline. She suggests the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, who was ultimately killed by a drone strike – despite being punished (via summary execution from a US drone), his online speeches continue to be influential and may have influenced the Boston Marathon bombers. Censoring that speech doesn’t work well in an online environment as it’s likely to move onto other platforms.

So what about “don’t feed the trolls”? Benesch points out that there are several implicit assumption in that advice. We assume that if we ignore a troll, they will stop (which, in turn, tends to assume behavior that’s only on a signal platform.) There’s an assumption that online hate is created by trolls; in the few experiments that look at racist and sexist speech, at least half is produced by non-trolls. We tend to assume that all trolls have the same motivations and that they will respond to the same controls. And finally, we assume that the trolls are the problem – we need to consider effects on the audience.

(Benesch doesn’t define trolls until pressed by the audience and points out that it’s a term she uses with tongue in cheek, most of the time – she acknowledges that different trolls have different motivations. Her goal is to move away from considering trolls as the problem and towards understanding dangerous speech as a broader phenomenon.)

One of the benefits of online speech environments, Benesch posits, is that we can examine the effect of speech on people. In offline environments, it’s very hard to measure what reactions dangerous speech leads to – in online environments, it may be possible to track both responses and effects.

Benesch’s suggestion is that we should approach dangerous speech through counterspeech, in effect, talking back to the trolls and to others. In explaining her logic, she notes that the internet doesn’t create hate speech – in some cases, it may disinhibit us from speaking. But more often, the internet creates an environment where we are aware of speech we otherwise wouldn’t hear. Most of us wouldn’t have been aware of what speech is shared at a KKK meeting, and many of us wouldn’t have heard the sexist jokes that were told in locker rooms. Now speech is crossing between formerly closed communities.

This is a new feature of human life, Benesch suggests, and while it causes a great deal of pain, it’s also an opportunity. We can “toss speech back across those boundaries to see what effect it has.” For the most part, we don’t know what will happen when we expose speech this way, and it’s possible the effects could be very positive. She asks us to consider norm formation in teenagers – most 16 year olds, she argues, have historically developed opinions from a small, homogenous community around them. That’s no longer the case, and it positive opportunity for teens to develop a broader and more nuanced worldview.

Believing in counterspeech means having faith that it’s possible to shift norms in speech communities. Benesch asks “What is the likelihood an American politician will use the N-word in public?” While there’s a constitutionally protected right to use such an offensive term, the probability of a speaker using the term is near zero. Yet, she argues, 60 years ago there were places in the US where you likely could not have been elected without using that word. “People’s behavior shifts dramatically in response to community norms,” she suggests, and as many of 80% of people are likely to follow the norms of speech consistent with a space and a situation, even trolls.

One of Benesch’s case studies for counterspeech comes from Kenya, where dangerous speech was a key component to violence in the wake of 2007′s disputed election. With over a thousand killed and hundreds of thousands displaced, the 2007-8 unrest was one of the ugliest chapters in the nation’s history, and as Kenya prepared for elections in 2013, many Kenyans were worried about inflammatory and dangerous speech online.

Benesch worked with Kenya data scientists at the iHub and the team at Ushahidi to build Umati (from the Swahili word for crowd), which collected reports of online hate speech. What they found was a wave of inflammatory speech from Facebook, and astonishingly little dangerous speech on Twitter. This disparity is not well explained by platform usage – Twitter is extremely popular in Kenya. Instead, it’s explained by counterspeech.

When inflammatory speech was posted on Twitter, prominent Kenyan twitter users (often members of the #KOT, Kenyans on Twitter, community) responded by criticizing the poster, often invoking the need to keep discourse in the country civil and productive. This counterspeech was surprisingly successful – Benesch tells the story of a Twitter user who posted that he would be okay with the disappearance of another ethnic group, and was immediately called out by other Twitter users. Within a few minutes, he had tweeted, “Sorry, guys, what I said wasn’t right and I take it back”.

This isn’t the behavior of a troll, Benesch argues. If the user in question were simply looking for attention, he wouldn’t have backed down when his inflammatory tweets met with spontaneous counterspeech. This online counterspeech is especially important when online speech is magnified by broadcast media, as it is in both Kenya and the US – it’s possible for television and newspapers to magnify not just the hateful speech but the attempts to counteract it.

By studying successful examples of counterspeech, Benesch is trying to develop a taxonomy of counterspeech and determine when and where different forms are most useful. She takes inspiration from examples like that of a young man in the US tweeting angrily about Nina Davuluri being named Miss America. The young man inaccurately and disparagingly referred to Davuluri as “an Arab”, and was immediately countered on Twitter by people who called out his racism. Within a few hours, he’d tweeted something resembling an apology to Davuluri herself.

Benesch wonders, “Can we put together the ideas of counterspeech and the idea of influencing 16 year olds?” It’s not realistic to believe we’re going to change the behavior of hardcore haters, she tells us, but we only need to influence a critical mass of people within a community, not the outliers.

Twitter and Facebook aren’t the only environments for inflammatory speech online – anyone who’s participated in online gaming knows that there’s toxic and hostile speech in online environments. Riot Games was concerned about the speech surrounding their popular game League of Legends and cooperated with academic researchers to understand speech in their game universe. The study found that fully half of the inflammatory messages were coming from users we wouldn’t normally consider to be trolls – they came from people who generally behaved like other game players, but were having a bad day and lashed out in ways that were inflammatory. They also discovered that very small changes in the platform – changes in language used to prompt players, apparently minor changes like font and text color – could improve behavior substantially.

Facebook’s “compassion research” project works on similar ideas, trying to get people to use Facebook in more pro-social ways. When you try to flag content on Facebook as offensive, Facebook first prompts you to engage with the person who offended you, suggesting language to communicate to the other user: “Could you take this down? It hurts my feelings.” As with Riot Games, they’ve found that small prompts can lead to dramatic behavior changes.

Benesch has been using these insights to consider problems of inflammatory speech in Myanmar (a topic I learned a little about in my visit to the country earlier this month.) In Myanmar, Facebook is the dominant internet platform, not just the dominant social media platform – if you search for information in Myanmar, you’re probably searching Facebook. In this environment, a rising tide of highly inflammatory speech inciting Buddhists against Muslims, particularly against the Rohingya people, is especially concerning. Not only does Facebook in Myanmar lead to echo chambers where no one may be willing to challenge inflammatory speech with counterspeech, but some of the mechanisms that work elsewhere may not work in Myanmar.

In a country that’s suffered under a military dictatorship for half a century, the idea of “reporting” people for their speech can be very frightening. Similarly, being encouraged to engage with someone who posted something offensive when you have reason to fear this person, or his friends, might threaten your life, isn’t a workable intervention. Any lessons from Facebook’s compassion research needs to be understood in specific human contexts. Benesch asks how you should respond to offensive speech as a Facebook user in Myanmar: you can like the post, but you can’t unlike it. If you respond in the comments thread, you’re participating in a space where the page owner can eliminate or bury your comment. This points to the challenge of using a private space as a quasi-public space.

We need more research on questions like this, Benesch offers. We need to understand different responses to dangerous speech, from “don’t feed the trolls” to counterspeech, to see what’s effective. We need to understand whether counterspeech that seeks to parody or use humor is more effective than direct confrontation. And we need to understand discourse norms in different communities as what works in one place is unlikely to work in another. Louis Brandeis advised that the remedy for bad speech is more speech. As researchers, we can go further and investigate which speech is a helpful counter to bad speech.


I’ll admit that the topic of Benesch’s research made me uneasy when we first met. I’m enough of a first amendment absolutist that I tend to regard talk of “dangerous speech” as an excuse for government control of speech. I had a great meeting with Benesch just before I went to Myanmar, and was much better prepared for the questions I fielded there than if I hadn’t benefitted from her wisdom. She’s done extensive work understanding what sorts of speech seems to drive people to harm one another, and she’s deeply dedicated to the idea that this speech can be countered more effectively than it could be censored or banned.

The conversation after her talk gave me a sense for just how challenging this work is – it’s tricky to define inflammatory speech, dangerous speech, trolling, etc. What might be a reasonable intervention to counter speech designed to incite people to violence might not be the right intervention to make a game community more inviting. On the other hand, counterspeech may be more important in ensuring that online spaces are open and inviting to women and to people of different races and faiths than they are right now, even if inflammatory speech never descends to the level of provoking violence.

For people interested in learning more about this topic, I’d recommend the links on the Berkman talk page as well as this essay from Cherian George, who was at the same meeting I attended in Myanmar and offered his thoughts on how the country might address its inflammatory speech online. I’m looking forward to learning more from Susan’s work and developing a more nuanced understanding of this complicated topic.


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