I’m at Code for America’s 2013 summit in San Francisco today, an impressive gathering put together by an extremely impressive civic innovation organization. I’m one of the advisors to Code for All, a sister project to Code for America led by Catherine Bracy, old friend from the Berkman Center, and was able to meet the first Code for All partners from Jamaica, Germany and Mexico at CfA’s amazing headquarters yesterday.
Code for America has done something pretty astounding. They’ve found a way to bring geeks into local governments to build innovative new projects in a way that’s fiscally sustainable. They’ve got support from the governments who host these geeks and from the central players in the US tech economy, and they’ve emerged as a central organizing node for the government innovation community.
Jen Pahlka, the founder of Code for America, opens her remarks with the classic Margaret Mead “Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world” quote, and admits that she never got her degree in anthropology because the classes were too early in the morning. She notes that many people working on civic change feel like they are a small group, though we’re able to come together into a movement today. She hopes that this isn’t a movement of sameness, but of diversity, which sometimes creates conflict and chaos. When we come together, we get new applications and APIs, but more importantly, we get a community and a common mission.
The common beliefs of this group include the idea that government can work of the people, by the people and for the people, even in the 21st century. We have in common the idea that we can do things better together. Code for America welcomes anyone who has these values, and – and here she emphasizes her words very carefully – are doing something. Code for America is a reaction to Tim O’Reilly’s injunction to the tech industry to “work on stuff that matters”. CfA, she tells us, works on the stuff that matters the most.
Jen is supposed to be working as deputy CTO under Todd Park in the White House on a yearlong break from the organization… though she’s on furlough at the moment. She explains her decision to move into government for a year by explaining how inspired she is by people working in government. “In order to honor all of you – all the public servants in government and the fellows to work with them – I felt like I could not pass up this experience.”
Answering the inevitable question: “How’s it going in DC?”, she answers that it’s both deeply rewarding and the hardest thing she’s ever done, including starting Code for America. She offers warm thanks to Bob Sofman and Abhi Nemani who’ve been leading the organization during her year off.
Clay Shirky start his talk at the Code for America summit with some internet history:
Larry Sanger is an epistemologist, hired into one of the few epistemology jobs, working on Nupedia, a new encyclopedia working with experts to build a carefully fact-checked new encyclopedia. Nine months into Nupedia, they’ve created about a dozen articles. Sanger realizes this isn’t working and goes to Jimmy Wales, the guy who hired him, and suggests using Ward Cunningham’s wiki software. Wikipedia is born and the rest is history – in weeks, it outpaces Nupedia and Nupedia rapidly shuts down.
Patrick McConlogue, a New York city entrepreneur who works at Kickass Capital, caught sight of a homeless guy on the streets of New York and proposes teaching him to program as a way of addressing the problem of “the unjustly homeless”. McConlogue never bothered to learn the homeless guy’s name, and the details of the story led to ferocious online criticism of McConlogue’s plans to teach a homeless man to program. In the criticism of McConlogue, Shirky was struck by the idea that tech startups encourage thinking that doesn’t consider limitations and constraints, which might be appropriate for the tech industry, but doesn’t work well in the social change space.
This sounded wrong to Shirky, who started re-reading the comments through this lens, looking both at the criticisms of McConlogue’s idea and the voluminous criticism of Leo, the homeless guy, for being homeless. Matt Yglesias was similarly skeptical, but looked at possible solutions: how do we address homelessness, which begins with looking for ways to create affordable housing. Clay draws a distinction between this sort of helpful criticism – which was very harsh to McConlogue’s approach, but ultimately helpful – and corrosive criticism, which doesn’t make you smarter but just tries to get you to stop looking at the problem.
Clay notes that he’s lived through two sorting out times: the question of whether the web would be important, and questions of whether social media would spread. In these periods of sorting out, technology looks like a solution in search of a problem, because at that point it is. Over time, we find answers to the question – will it work? will it scale – and it ultimately does. Clay suggests that we’re now at that point with civic media. We need to listen to the helpful critics, and we need to stop listening to the corrosive ones so we can keep moving forward.
“If you want to feel like a genius, go to a place where people are doing something new and predict that they’ll fail. You’ll almost always get it right. It’s a cheap high.” There’s a great deal of space between “nothing will work” and “almost nothing will work”. The easiest problems to take on, Clay tells us, are pure technical problems where you just need information. It’s not an accident that applications to report potholes are the great success story in this space – there’s no pothole lobby. Potholes are projects and they have solutions.
One step up from technical problems are managerial problems. In starting a bike sharing program in New York, the organizers posted a map and asked people to request bike stations. The resulting map, where everyone requested a station outside their homes, was a rhetorical document that helped build support for the program. Managerial problems don’t just solve technical problems – they have to do with building support and constituencies for solutions. And then there are political problems.
It is not possible to imagine a city without prostitutes, Clay tells us. People don’t agree what the goal is when they address prostitution. Some people want sex work to stop and some people want it to be a better job. At the political level, you’re not dealing with problems – you’re dealing with dilemmas and you only have tradeoffs, not solutions.
When people want to distract you, Clay tells us, they tell you the problem you’re working on is not the real problem. “Don’t work on potholes – work on traffic flow citywide.” Work at that scale and you’ll get criticized for not working on something concrete and achievable because you can always find a way to criticize a project’s scale.
The possibility of learning as you go is the potential of the people in this room, Clay tells us. We can’t find major solutions by planning better or by starting an endless series of unconferences and hackathons: hackathons don’t produce running code, but better understanding of problems and better social capital. In the internet community, we’ve all thought through Nupedia and we think we understand how it ground to a halt through bureaucracy. But many of us fail to understand that the people who made Nupedia fail were the people who make Wikipedia succeed, the same folks who’d been building Nupedia. Wikipedia was a plan B.
When you build a prototype, you’re building up your understanding of the process. When you build a prototype, you’re not solving the client’s problem – you’re often showing show the client that they don’t understand the problem, as people often don’t tell you what they need until you can show them something that is concretely wrong. If we can commit to working on problems before discovering at first that we’re wrong, we can take on the most challenging problems that face us.
Because I have a long commute, I listen to a lot of audio: public radio, podcasts and audiobooks. Because I work in academe, I have a massive pile of books and papers I need to read: books by friends, books for research projects, classics in the field that I should have read at this point in my life. Unfortunately, there is near zero overlap between the listening I do and the reading I need to do.
For example, right now I’m reading Hirschman’s “Exit, Voice and Loyalty“. I’m listening to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Ben Franklin, and while it’s very enjoyable, it’s not really what I need to be reading right now. What I need is a business, a collective or a method that makes and distributes high quality recordings of books that are too obscure to become audiobooks through normal channels, but popular enough that they have a non-zero audience.
I’ve been thinking about this because I spent part of this month recording the audiobook for Rewire. I am very fortunate that Audible purchased audio rights to the book from my publisher, and even more fortunate that Audible was willing to let me record the book, which has given me some insight into the process and the costs involved.
Rewire will end up being about 11 hours of audio, and it took me roughly 19 hours of studio time to record it. Readers get paid (very modestly, in my case, as I’m a novice reader.) The audio engineer who patiently followed along, prompting me to re-record sentences I screwed up needs to get paid, as do the engineers at Audible who edit out my breaths and other auditory detritus. I’m going to guess that a setup involving a reader, an engineer and a post-processing engineer costs at minimum $300 per hour of finished audio – with a professional reader and more editing, this figure could be much, much higher. (If you work in this space and have a better cost estimate, please share it in the comments.)
If my estimate is right, I could – in theory – hire a team to record Hirschman’s slim volume for $2000 or so, for my exclusive personal use. But that’s not very cost effective: at that price, it’s a better deal for me to hire a driver for one of my commutes between Pittsfield and Cambridge and spend the time reading the book. But there’s surely dozens of others out there interested in reading Hirschman since Malcolm Gladwell lavished praise on him in a recent New Yorker piece. If I can find 99 others, we could – in theory – hear Hirschman for $20 each.
There’s a rub, of course – I don’t have the rights to Hirschman’s work. That might or might not matter if I hired someone to read it to me, but it would certainly matter if I started selling a reading of Hirschman’s book to others. I wonder if this might be a surmountable problem for “long tail” books, which are unlikely to be made into audio books otherwise. If we added a royalty payment for copies sold of the Hirschman audiobook, paid to a publisher, is it possible we could build a model that’s both feasible and legal for organizing adhoc recordings of books?
Here’s how I think it could work. I’d post my request for Hirschman’s book to our site, and ask others to join with me. We’d each commit at least $20 to ensure we got a copy of the recording, and we could commit more if we really, really wanted the book read. If we reached critical mass, say 110 readers, we’d use the money to pay a reader and engineer and provide a royalty to the publisher. If we fell short of the goal within a certain timeline, we’d invoke the punk rock/DIY option – those who had committed to the project would be asked if they wanted to record a chapter of the book and we’d submit and compile our chapters into a lower quality, but serviceable audiobook.
I’m not actually in a position to launch this project – remember, I’m the guy who doesn’t have time to read a 130 page book and needs it read to him. But I’d be very interested to hear if someone’s already doing a business like this, or whether anyone would be interested in starting a business like this. I’m less interested in hearing that I can just use text to speech on my computer and that should be completely satisfactory – it’s not, I’ve tried – or that I should find a way to access books recorded for the blind (IP issues in that industry are very complicated and having sighted people access those works could screw things up for blind readers.) I’m particularly interested in hearing from people in the publishing industry about whether there are presses that would find this a satisfactory solution, or whether any rightminded publisher would stop a project like this in its tracks. Oh, and if you’ve a better name than Long Tail Audiobooks, post that as well…
With Rewire out in the world, I’ve had some time this August to think about some of the big questions behind our work at Center for Civic Media, specifically the questions I started to bring up at this year’s Digital Media and Learning Conference: How do we teach civics to a generation that is “born digital“? Are we experiencing a “new civics”, a crisis in civics, or just an opportunistic rebranding of old problems in new digital bottles? My reading this summer hasn’t given me answers, but has sharpened some of the questions.
Earlier this summer, I was invited by the Mobilizing Ideas blog to react to Biella Coleman’s excellent book, “Coding Freedom“. In my response, I noted that Coleman’s ethnography of hacker culture makes clear her hacker friends aren’t the stereotypical geeks, surgically attached to their computers, sequestered in their parents’ basement – they go to conventions, write poetry, and engage in political protest, as well as writing code.
The sort of hackers Biella documents engage in politics, and when they do, they’ve got multiple tools they can use. They organize political campaigns and lobby congresspeople, as Yochai Benkler and colleagues so aptly documented in this recent paper on resistance to SOPA/PIPA. They can write code that makes a new behaviors possible, like Miro, written by the Participatory Culture Foundation, which makes peer to peer filesharing and search easier and more user-friedly. They protest artistically, as with Seth Schoen’s DeCSS haiku (which prominently features in Biella’s writing.)
Hackers engage in instrumental activism, seeking change by challenging unjust laws. They engage in voice-based activism, articulating their frustration and dissent from systems they either cannot or are not willing to exit. But hackers aren’t merely competent activists in Biella’s account – they are able to engage in civics in a more broad way than most citizens. In addition to traditional channels for civic engagement, they can engage by creating code, giving them a more varied repertoire of civic techniques than non-coders have. (We might make the same argument for artists, who may be more effective in spreading their voices than those of us with less artistic talent.)
I’ve been thinking about Biella’s hackers in the context of some ideas from Michael Schudson. Schudson is a brilliant thinker about the relationship between media and civic engagement, the question that currently shapes my work at the Center for Civic Media. In his book “The Good Citizen”, and this 1999 lecture, Schudson challenges the idea that a good American citizen is one who carefully informs herself about politicians, their positions and the issues of an election. Schudson argues that this is an unrealistic expectation for citizens, pointing to the absurdity of 200 page Voter’s Guides to Elections that, he argues, nobody reads. (I know for a fact that danah boyd not only reads them, but holds parties to get people to read them with her.) But he also argues that this model of the “informed citizen” is only one model of American citizenship the republic has experienced since its foundation.
In “The Good Citizen”, Schudson explores four models of citizenship the US has passed through in the last two centuries and change. When the nation was founded, citizenship was restricted to a small group of property-owning white men, and elections didn’t focus on issues, but elected men of high status and character, who went on to deliberate in Congress with similar social elites. In the age of party politics, Schudson argues, politics was a carnival, with votes based on personal loyalties and social alliances, not on consideration of the issues.
Not until the Progressive reformers attacked corruption in the party system (an attack which included support for prohibition of alcohol, as party bosses were often tavern owners and the ability to supply voters with drink was a key political technique) did the notion of the informed voter come into play. Progressives, through adoption of the secret ballot, the introduction of referenda and the rise of muckraking investigative journalism, shifted responsibility for politics from a small group of elites and party bosses, to the general public. Schudson observes that the general public hasn’t been especially excited by this shift – participation in elections fell sharply during the progressive era and has been below 50% of eligible voters since.
Now, Schudson argues, we are living in an era where change through elections is less important than change through the courts, an age that began with the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. Informed citizens are important, but their power to make change comes from suing as much as it comes from voting, and activists and lawyers who understand how to challenge constitutionality through the court system are far more powerful than the average citizen.
While he’s critical of the informed citizen model as unrealistic, Schudson is not arguing for the superiority of the rights-based model, or for a return to party bosses. He’s pointing out that America has experienced different visions of what constitutes “the good citizen” and that these visions can change over time.
That’s helpful context for understanding Biella’s hackers. We may be experiencing a shift in citizenship where the idea of the informed citizen no longer applies well to the contemporary political climate. The entrenched gridlock of Congress, the power of incumbency and the geographic polarization of the US make it difficult to argue that making an informed decision about voting for one’s representative in Congress is the most effective way to have a voice in political dialogs.
Instead, we’re seeing activists, particularly young activists, taking on issues through viral video campaigns, consumer activism, civic crowdfunding, and other forms of civic engagement that operate outside traditional political channels. Lance Bennett suggests that we might see these new activists as self-actualizing citizens, focused on methods of civic participation that allow them to see impacts quickly and clearly, rather than following older prescriptions of participation through the informed citizen model.
Biella’s hackers are exemplars of self-actualizing citizens, using code as one of their paths towards self-actualization, alongside traditional political organizing and lobbying. Larry Lessig’s Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, a book deeply popular with the hackers Biella studies, offers the possibility that these are only two of four paths towards civic engagement and change.
Lessig’s book is written as a warning about possible constraints to the open internet. While many contemporary scholars warned that the lawless internet would come under control of national and local governments, Lessig warned that it would also be regulated through code, which would make some behaviors difficult or impossible to accomplish online. Lessig outlines four ways complex systems tend to be regulated:
- By laws, created and enforced by governments, which prohibit certain behaviors
- By norms, which are created by or emerge from societies, which favor certain behaviors over others
- By markets, regulated and unregulated by laws, which make certain behaviors cheap and others expensive
- By code and other architectures, which make some behaviors difficult and others easy to accomplish
These four methods of regulation are also ways in which activists and other engaged citizens can participate in civics. Citizens frustrated and angered by NSA surveillance of domestic communications, for example, could lobby Congress to hold hearings on whether the NSA has overstepped its bounds, or whether FISA courts are providing sufficient oversight of government surveillance requests. Civic coders could build tools that make use of PGP encryption easier to protect the privacy of emails. Citizens could punish companies that have complied with surveillance requests and reward those who are moving servers outside of the US to make them more surveillance resistant. And people could begin using Tor and PGP routinely, to influence norms of behavior around encryption and make the NSA’s techniques significantly less effective.
These methods are often applied to non-technical issues as well. Social entrepreneurship uses market mechanisms to seek change, paying farmers a fair wage for their coffee, for instance, by buying from collectives rather than from exploitative wholesalers. Social media campaigns focus on harnessing attention and changing norms, bringing underreported issues to wider audiences. Using code to make government more transparent or more effective is a popular, if possibly overhyped, approach to social change. These models may represent a complement to the informed citizen and rights-based citizenship models Schudson examines, representing new civic capabilities in addition to the capability of influencing laws and governments.
Mastering these four capabilities is a tall order for any civic participant, but some activists are trying. Julian Assange has technical skills, as well as a deep understanding of media, which has allowed him to cooperate and compete for attention in working to change norms around secrecy and whistleblowing. His long run from prosecution has sharpened his understanding of legal systems, and, until the financial “blockade” against Wikileaks, he seemed to be doing reasonably well raising money for his project. (My friend Sasa Vucinic, involved with anti-Milosevic radio station B92 and founder of the Media Development Loan Fund, argues that the key to running a successful anti-government newspaper is to get the funding model right and build a sustainable media outlet.) Edward Snowden has proved extremely technically savvy, legally astute and has had an excellent relationship with the global press, essential to gain a wide audience for his revelations.
Schudson’s portrait of citizenship through the ages focuses on the behavior of large groups of citizens. Assange and Snowden are too idiosyncratic to serve as exemplars of a new class of digitally engaged citizens, promoting a new vision of citizenship. But they demonstrate what a highly competent, multifaceted civic participant might look like and I suspect that we will see more citizens leveraging the full suite of tools that Lessig’s structures of regulation point to.
A challenge for those of us who see the shape of civics changing is how we prepare people to participate in civics where the skills required are so diverse. If it’s difficult to expect citizens to be informed voters, as Schudson argues, it’s very difficult to expect them to be coders, entrepreneurs, lawyers and media influencers. We might hope, as Dewey does, that diverse interests will lead to an interlocking public – I care about surveillance and work to change norms, while you write code, and our friend tackles another challenge through social entrepreneurship. Or it may push us back to a democracy enhanced by expertise, as Walter Lippmann suggests, with citizens throwing fiscal and moral support to organizations that lobby for laws, write code, build just markets and influence public debate, leveraging the expertise and skill of those who dedicate their talents to one or more of these facets of citizenship.
I shared a draft of this post with Erhardt Graeff, who pointed out an inherent tension between ideas of the competent and effective citizen and the “good” citizen. The “good” citizens, in Schudson’s exploration, are those who participated in the system of the times, whether or not we see those systems as laudable in retrospect. A particularly cynical version of this idea would posit that today’s “good citizen” is a predictably partisan consumer, deviating as little as possible from the demographic predictions and models built by pollsters and data analysts to ensure that our candidates are correctly marketed to us. Highly participatory and effective citizens would challenge this sort of model, and it’s certainly possible that a democracy composed purely of Assanges and Snowdens would have a hard time functioning.
Erhardt points out that Lessig has been an activist throughout his career, and that his vision of regulation in Code is one consonant with the effective citizen. But can democracy work if all citizens are effective at promoting and campaigning for their own issues? Have we seen evidence of a society with high, effective engagement and with the other characteristics we expect of a democracy? Should a group like Center for Civic Media be working on thinking through models of effective citizenship or considering the larger question of what a large group of effective, engaged citizens could mean for contemporary visions of democracy?
Friends at Die Zeit, who heard me speak at a panel about “Cameras Everywhere” at Personal Democracy Forum, asked me to write an op-ed for their newspaper. That piece ran today, translated into German. Here’s the English version I wrote just before the “Restore the 4th” protests in Washington DC and elsewhere.
Revelations about the extent of the US government’s surveillance of digital media has triggered a range of reactions around the world. In the world outside the US, citizens and their governments are rightly furious that the National Security Agency is systematically monitoring communications on some of the world’s most widely used communications platforms. That the US apparently spies on its closest allies in EU offices merely adds insult to injury.
The reaction within the US to these revelations has been disappointingly subdued. Civil libertarians and advocates for free speech online are struggling to productively channel their anger and are planning a major protest in Washington DC on July 4. But more widespread responses include a nodding acceptance of any invasion of privacy in exchange for prevention of terrorist violence, and a cynical, world-weary insistence that no one should be surprised that all digital networks are monitored both by corporations and by governments.
As a frustrated advocate for unfettered online speech, I find myself looking for ways to help my fellow Americans understand the significance of pervasive online surveillance. Unlike in Germany, where memories of the Stasi trigger an instinctive resistance to being watched, surveillance in the US has often focused on marginal political groups, which allows many Americans to assume that surveillance doesn’t affect them personally. This search for ways to make surveillance more apparent has led me to the work of Dr. Steve Mann and his work on “sousveillance”.
Mann is a professor at the University of Toronto, and an innovator in the world of wearable computers. In 1981, as a student at MIT, he created the first generation of EyeTap, a head mounted camera that recorded what the wearer saw and presented a computer-enhanced view of the scene. More than thirty years before Google Glass, Mann began living life while wearing a camera, recording all that he encountered, an experience that’s given him some deep insights into watching and being watched.
Mann coined the term “sousveillance” – watching from below – as an alternative to “surveillance” – watching from above. In surveillance, powerful institutions control the behavior of individuals by watching them or threatening to watch them, as in Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. In sousveillance, individuals invert the paradigm by turning their cameras on institutions, promising to document and share misbehavior and malfeasance with a potentially global audience through digital networks.
One effect of sousveillance is to provoke conversations about what it means to be watched. Even when surveillance is visible, as in the CCTV cameras that loom over many of our city streets, most of us tend to ignore the unseen watchers who monitor us. But when someone points a camera at us – particularly a camera mounted on their eyeglasses – we react, often with anger or dismay. Mann, who wears his EyeTap permanently attached to his head, was assaulted in a McDonalds in Paris by employees who were upset that he was taking pictures and who sought to force him to remove the camera.
We may need similar provocations to trigger our reactions to online surveillance. “Creepy”, a program by Ioannis Kakavas, can track an individual’s movements on a map through her postings on social media services. While Creepy was intended as an activist project, commercial programs use similar techniques. A controversial iPhone application, Girls Around Me, mines data on Foursquare to alert men looking for dates to locations in their cities where many women have checked in. Angry reactions to these programs, as well as reports of bars preemptively banning patrons from wearing Google Glass suggest that Mann’s idea of making surveillance both personal and visible may be a first step in provoking a discussion about what types of watching are appropriate and inappropriate.
There’s a second aspect of sousveillance that’s worth exploring: the idea that individuals may be able to keep the powerful in check by documenting misbehavior. While this idea can seem hopelessly naïve when confronted with systems as massive and pervasive as PRISM, it’s worth exploring cases where watching from below has helped fight abuses of power. Morgan Tsvangirai’s appointment as prime minister of Zimbabwe in 2009 was a direct result of his party’s technique of photographing voting tallies at each polling station, enabling a parallel tabulation of votes. Confronted with evidence that Tsvangirai had beaten Mugabe in the first round, Mugabe’s government was unable to rig the election and was forced into a power-sharing agreement with Tsvangirai, the opposition leader.
More recently, activists in the Occupy Movement have used livestreaming of video as a technique to document their protests and police violence against protesters. Dozens of cameras captured footage of Lt. John Pike attacking seated protesters with pepper spray at a peaceful Occupy protest at UC Davis. The widely documented incident led to the UC Davis police chief and two officers being suspended and to Lt. Pike losing his job, and created one of the most powerful images of the power asymmetries the Occupy movement sought to confront.
Pervasive cameras can document the inner workings of institutions as well as abuses of power. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney suffered a major campaign setback when video showed him dismissing 47% of the American electorate as unlikely to vote for him because they “believe they are victims” and are dependent on government services. The video, secretly shot by Scott Prouty at a fundraising event, was posted online and widely distributed by Democratic activists, who saw the video as evidence that Romney was out of touch with the electorate.
Most recently, sousveillance has shown its power in documenting protest movements in Turkey and Brazil that were initially ignored by mainstream media. In Turkey, CNN famously showed a documentary about penguins rather than footage from Gezi Park, leading protesters to make signs that show penguins wearing gas masks, protesting both the government’s use of tear gas and the media’s silence about the protests. In the absence of broadcast media attention, the protesters used their own documentation to find audiences online, spreading protests from those in the park to those who witnessed online and began protests in their corners of the country.
The Obama administration seems unlikely to shift policy on online surveillance without widespread and sustained popular outcry. As activists seek to trigger that outcry, we may need to make surveillance far more visible so it can become far more controversial.
I have a brief piece on The Atlantic’s website today that contrasts Facebook and Reddit in terms of how they build online communities and direct their users to new content. I argue that Reddit, with the assumption of anonymity and an organization around topics and sections has some resemblance to the Internet of the 1980 and 90s, while Facebook has changed the shape of internet communities, demanding real-name registration and building online social networks that mirror our offline networks. By paying attention to social media communities that work along the Reddit model as well as those that follow the Facebook model, I hope that people can increase their cognitive diversity and expose themselves to a wider range of ideas, opinions and perspectives.
My friend Anthea Watson Strong pointed out on Twitter that Reddit is an odd example to use when talking about cognitive diversity. It has a reputation for being white, male, young and American… and that reputation is not unjustified. (This study of US Reddit users by Pew’s Internet and American Life Project suggests that the audience is broader and larger than we might think – in particular, I was surprised to see the large reach with Latino youth.) In Rewire, I spend a decent amount of time beating myself up for my Reddit habit, pointing to my tendency to return to the site as an example of seeking out familiar, comfortable voices rather than seeking diversity.
So why the praise for Reddit? I’m not trying to argue that Reddit is superior to Facebook, or that Reddit is the solution to problems of increasing cognitive diversity. But Reddit is a good example of a site that’s reached a large audience by using a different model of community than Facebook’s model of real-name, real-world network community. Other examples include Twitter (which features asymmetric following, no assumption of real name, and support for topic-based organization through lists), and Wikipedia (which features communities based around common practice and collaboration and a citizenship model for participation).
My argument isn’t even against Facebook’s ordering of community, though I think it reinforces homophily effects that plague offline communities. It’s for people building new internet tools to consider the idea that there are multiple ways of building an online community, and that different communities have different strengths and weaknesses. The people you meet by exploring a common topic is different than the group of people you meet by migrating your offline social network online. I worry that when we talk about “social media”, we talk too much about networks that work like Facebook and not enough about networks that work like Reddit or like Wikipedia. In particular, I see a lot of tools that are using social networks to customize search and use only a narrow definition of social network to look for recommendations and inspirations.
Commenting on my piece, David Aron Levine notes, “This article by @EthanZ on Reddit highlights as much a latent demand for something more as it does Reddit”. Yep – that’s right. I like Reddit and use it (as a lurker, as my dismal karma numbers will show), but what I’d really like to see is a wave of new communities organized around different ideas of what it means to be social. Some might connect people around topics of common interest, as Reddit does. Others might bring people together around a common project, as Wikipedia does. I’d particularly like to see – or perhaps build – a community that helps people discover each other via a common interest but emphasizes connecting people who would be highly unlikely to meet in the physical world, or who come from very different backgrounds.
Would love your thoughts on who’s doing good work defining online community in terms other than “people I know in the physical world” and how these communities can help people discover information online.