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Town Meeting and a lesson on civic efficacy

Last night, I attended Town Meeting in Lanesborough, MA.

Town meeting government is peculiar to New England and especially strong in Massachusetts, where almost 300 of the state’s municipalities are governed by an annual meeting of town residents. My town is under the population threshold of 6000 at which towns can choose to elect representatives to town meeting. In small towns like ours, we are required to hold an open town meeting, at which any residents may speak and ask questions and where registered voters vote on any major discretionary spending and on changes to the town’s bylaws.

These aren’t the question and answer sessions with national-level elected officials that became infamous for revealing how angry and partisan many American are. They are dead practical discussions of individual line items in the annual budget of a small, mostly volunteer-run organization. (Lanesborough has three elected selectmen, who appoint a paid town manager. The selectmen are nominally compensated for their work, and most committee members are volunteers. The town’s budget of $10 million, goes almost exclusively towards salaries for teachers, school administrators, police and highway workers.) The conversations that take place aren’t the sort that play well on cable TV news – instead, they’re familiar to anyone who’s served on the board of a budget-constrained nonprofit organization.

Town meetings are frequently lauded as one of the purest forms of direct democracy. Everyone has a voice, which is a good and a bad thing – only fifteen minutes into last night’s meeting, it became clear why every meeting has a moderator and why that moderator has extremely broad discretion over closing discussion on a topic. About an hour into the meeting, I asked a question about a $10,000 expenditure on road repairs, and quickly regretted doing so. I was curious because it was the sole article on the warrant where the selectmen and finance committee were at odds, and I was interested to know what the dispute was about. Half an hour later, I knew a great deal more about the problem of runoff from unpaved roads into Pontoosuc Lake, snowplowing and the nuances of accepted, non-accepted and private roads than I’d really wanted to know.


Mark Schiek, Mount Greylock Building Committee Chairman, speaks at Lanesborough Town Meeting. Photo from iBerkshires

I was acutely aware of the time my question was taking up because, like most of the people who attended the meeting, I was there because of a single article, Article 21, slated for discussion near the end of the meeting. Lanesborough has quite high tax rates (38th statewide), even for Massachusetts, in part because we maintain our own elementary school and share a high school with larger, wealthier Williamstown. That high school has serious structural deficiencies, and there’s a plan on the table to retrofit the building or build a new facility. First step in that plan is gaining approval for a $850,000 feasibility study at the town meetings in Williamstown and Lanesborough.

Many of the people in the elementary school gym last night are parents of young children (like me) who wanted to ensure that their children’s high school remains strong. And, like me, many were paying babysitters to watch their kids so they could vote in favor of a feasibility study.

My presence at Town Meeting was a straightforward illustration of an idea Anthea Watson Strong introduced at the recent Personal Democracy Forum in New York. To explain why it’s often difficult to get people involved in civics, she offered an equation:

antheaequation

The benefit of renovations to our local high school is quite high for me: my son enters kindergarden in 15 months, which means he’s likely to enjoy the full benefits of a new or renovated middle and high school. Those campaigning in favor of the feasibility study persuaded me that P was pretty high, as they were expecting showdown between pro-education and anti-tax forces, and they needed every vote they could get, as this allocation requires a supermajority. Even without considering duty, P * B was high enough to overcome the substantial cost of action: three hours of a babysitter, a rushed dinner instead of a night of bad TV on the couch.

As it happens, Article 21 didn’t need my vote. Several townspeople spoke passionately about the need for strong schools, one suggesting that as Berkshire County shrinks in population, we should expect our high school to become a magnet for high performing students in nearby communities. Members of the regional school committee had good answers to probing questions about school choice, tuition for out of town students and the steps in funding a renovation process. Two townspeople spoke against the article – as it turned out, they were the only ones I saw vote against the article – well over a hundred voted for it. I misperceived P – spending time at Town Meeting seemed like an effective civic action because I anticipated showdown that didn’t actually occur. (I suspect that “perceived P” is more important than actual P – if you think your vote counts, you’re more likely to vote.)

When the Article passed, dozens of people left the meeting. I left, too – I wanted to pay my babysitter and get to bed. In the process, I illustrated precisely the problem Massachusetts communities are having with town meeting. Several communities have abandoned the meeting system of government because it’s very hard to get people to attend when there’s not a controversial issue on the table. In other words, D is very low. In my case, it’s low enough that it hasn’t moved me to attend Town Meeting in the 15 years I’ve lived in town, until an issue arose where PB > C.

That may change for me. I learned a great deal about my town by attending town meeting, details about how the water, sewers and roads work that I’ve honestly never thought about. The main thing I learned was that to participate in these meetings effectively, I’d need to do a great deal of reading ahead of time, much as I prepare for budget committee meetings for NGO boards I sit on. At that point, P would be higher (though, most of the time, I’m not sure B or D is high enough for me to stay engaged.)

These calculations about the civic utility of attending town meeting suggest some problems for those who are seeking change through government transparency. It’s hard to think of a ritual more conducive to transparency than the Town Meeting. The town publishes an annual report with a detailed, proposed budget ahead of time, and every line of the budget can be questioned by any resident. While this transparency is laudable, it’s also extremely confusing to those who don’t know the issues already. Transparency without explanation opens the process to those who have time and motivation to learn what’s at stake. The rest of us could use a good guide, something we rely on the increasingly stretched local press for. The Berkshire Eagle ran a brief story about what issues were on the table at the meeting, though no follow up about what decisions were made. (A local news site had an excellent article on the Article 21 vote.)

There’s another way of considering engagement in Town Meeting, beyond Anthea’s PB + D > C
equation. Zeynep Tufekci, reacting to a tweet I posted about Anthea’s framework, wondered whether a game theoretic equation was the best explanation for civic behavior. She suggested that most people participate in social movements because their friends are participating, or because it seemed like “the right moment”, not because of some careful calculus. That’s true for me, too. My favorite waitress at Bob’s Country Kitchen, who’s slated to be my son’s kindergarten teacher, urged me to pay attention to the school funding issue, and friends at a BBQ talked about the importance of passing Article 21. Without those nudges from my neighbors, it’s a lot less likely that I’d have left my house last night.

Much of my research on civics focuses on questions of why people don’t find it effective to engage with their governments. It was a refreshing challenge to my thinking to spend time with my local government and find it surprisingly open and responsive. At the same time, it was a reminder that many of the issues I care about – prison reform, gun control – aren’t ever going to be settled in a room as transparent and congenial as the Lanesborough Elementary School gym.


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.


Imagining Wenzhou – How can we use the Internet to introduce readers to unfamiliar cities?

In 2006, American adman Dan Ligon shared a video, “Ha Ha Ha America”, that he’d entered in the Sundance film festival. The video presents itself as an angry and dismissive rant about China’s superiority and America’s inferiority, badly subtitled in Chinglish. I wrote about the film when it came out, troubled by the racism associated with the Chinglish narration, and my fear it would be misread as reality, not satire, by American audiences. The Shanghaiist and some other China-based commentators were similarly troubled, though one Daily Kos reader found it a helpful wakeup call about China’s rise and America’s failure to compete economically.


A story about shooting Ha Ha Ha America, from Ligon’s site.

The film is shot in Wenzhou, and central to its narrative is the idea that Wenzhou, China’s 16th largest city, is likely to surpass New York City in population soon. This requires some blurring of the numbers – the Wenzhou jurisdiction, which includes two satellite cities and six counties, has a population of about 9 million, though only 3 million live in the city proper. New York City has an urban population of over 8 million and 20 million in the broader metropolitan area. Ligon’s comparison is apples to oranges (metropolitan area to urban population), but it’s a provocative idea that a city most Americans had never heard of could rival the population of America’s largest cities.

What interested me about Ligon’s film was the juxtaposition of a narrative about China’s rise with the images of a cityscape that isn’t going to challenge New York City for tourists any time soon. If Ligon’s argument is that size matters, then perhaps discovering that a massive city that reads visually as a somewhat sleepy provincial capital tells us that a future of Chinese megacities is going to look very different from the European/American 20th century. Or perhaps there’s a subtler message that size isn’t everything, and that iconic, aspirational cities occupy another conceptual space entirely.


Ha Ha Ha America, on YouTube

I was thinking about “Ha Ha Ha America” because I realize I don’t have a very clear picture of what Chinese cities look like. I’ve recently been to Guangzhou and Hong Kong, and in the more distant past, to Beijing, but it’s very hard for me to picture what I think Wenzhou would look like.

I’ve been thinking about Chinese cities because my colleague Catherine d’Ignazio is working on a project called Terra Incognita, an online game that tracks your reading about different cities and invites you to explore readings about unfamiliar parts of the world. The project is a reaction, in part, to my writings about homophily and serendipity. By helping you monitor your reading behavior, Terra Incognita can reveal your blind spots, and then help you find ways to explore content from those unknown parts of the world.

brazzaville

Catherine’s current implementation of Terra Incognita uses a browser plugin to track your reading (only on a whitelisted set of news sites) and opens a portal to one of the world’s 1000 largest cities when you open a new tab. Should you read a lot about Europe, you won’t get a page on Berlin, but might get Brazzaville, which could include a piece from my blog about Congolese sapeurs.

That we’re relying on this blog as a source of compelling content designed to help you explore unfamiliar places is an indicator of the main problem with the project: it’s hard to find compelling readings on many of the world’s cities. This problem is especially acute for China. Roughly 40% of the cities on the list Catherine is working from are in mainland China, and it’s not always easy to find English-language readings that introduce what’s exciting or special about a city to an international audience.

A Google search for Wenzhou will, tragically, turn up a lot of documents, due to a horrific train crash outside the city in July 2011. This New Yorker article by Evan Osnos is an excellent overview of the crash and the factor that led to it, but doesn’t tell you much about Wenzhou itself. The Wikipedia page on Wenzhou offers the intriguing hint that the city is legendary for its entrepreneurialism, and is the “birthplace of China’s private economy.” More bluntly, the article notes, “A popular saying calls Wenzhounese the “Jews of the Orient” (东方的犹太人). ”

Exploring this idea, I found Peter Hessler’s article for National Geographic, “China’s Instant Cities”. Hessler explores the growth of Lishui, a rapidly growing manufacturing city 80 kilometers from Wenzhou through the story of Boss Gao, a Wenzhouese entrepreneur who builds a factory to build bra underwires and rings (the wire rings that bra clasps hook into.) It’s a brilliant story, featured in a collection of 2008’s best magazine writing, and it did exactly what I hope Terra Incognita can do: help readers develop an interest in places they knew nothing about. (I’m now using magportal.com, a magazine search engine, to look for other Wenzhou articles, like Stephen Glain’s article in Smithsonian magazine, “A Tale of Two Chinas”, which contrasts entrepreneurial Wenzhou with Shenyang, a former government stronghold now facing hard times.

As I was writing “Rewire”, I had a helpful and long-running argument with David Weinberger, who worried that my hopes of engineering serendipity by tracking what we read, identifying blind spots and making suggestions would be less effective than a much simpler strategy – just read a really good magazine. The promise of Granta, The New Yorker or other elite magazines is simple: it doesn’t matter if you’re interested in the topic, because the writing is so good it will draw you in.

David’s right that quality matters. But I wonder if the magazine format is the key issue. Introducing someone to your community via news stories doesn’t work, as they lack context to understand the news. An encyclopedia article offers background, but no seduction, no reason to read and explore. Magazine articles need to draw you in and to expose you to the unfamiliar, and can’t assume as much context. Part of the success of Terra Incognita may rest on whether we can find these sorts of high quality, low context stories for a thousand cities.

How would you explain your hometown to a foreign visitor in half a dozen weblinks, or less? Wikipedia’s article on Pittsfield, MA includes an article in the Financial Times that generously describes our little city as “The Brooklyn of the Berskhires”, an article on retirement that points out that Pittsfield is the only US city where the majority of retirees are single, and an ESPN piece that details Pittsfield’s tenuous claim to be the birthplace of baseball. (A historian discovered an early reference to baseball in a 1791 Pittsfield bylaw, prohibiting playing the game near the city’s new meetinghouse, which featured glass windows. Pittsfield also features one of only two professional baseball stadiums that faces west, meaning the batter faces the setting sun. This means ballgames in Pittsfield routinely feature “sun delays”, during which play stops because the batter is blinded, leading also to our baseball team being named the Pittsfield Suns.)

Incomplete? Yes. Biased? Indeed. But if you’re interested in learning more either about Wenzhou or Pittsfield, perhaps Catherine is on to something.


Catherine and I would love your help on Terra Incognita – please sign up for the alpha site here, and if you have specific suggestions of stories to represent a city, please use this form. I’d also welcome general thoughts on how we should be looking for great stories linked to global cities.


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