The other day, I had coffee with a friend who works for the New York Times. Early in the conversation, I admitted to him that I’ve developed a love/hate relationship with the Times. I love much of the paper’s content (though I share Greenwald’s wish that the Times would call torture “torture”) and find that many of the most interesting stories I read in a week come from the Times. But I am getting really sick of the Times’s efforts to nickle and dime me as a digital subscriber. Despite paying for access to the paper’s excellent content, they somehow make me feel like a piker if I’m not a subscriber to the print edition at nearly a thousand dollars a year.
I can access the Times through MIT, but decided that I read the paper often enough on other devices and outside of MIT’s network that I should become a digital subscriber. For a couple of weeks, I was a satisfied customer, reading far more than my allotment of ten free stories in my browser, and flipping through the paper on my phone when in transit or waiting on lines. But then the Times implemented its new “three articles a day” plan for mobile readers of the paper. My digital subscription – which costs $240 a year – includes a tablet and web version of the newspaper, but getting unlimited access via my phone costs an additional $180 a year.
Because the Times evidently takes its business cues from the widely despised cable TV industry, they like to bundle their content. As a result, the best way to get digital access is to purchase it bundled with the paper edition of the newspaper… which the Times won’t deliver to my rural address. I could also downgrade my bundle from web and iPad to web and phone, but it seems bizarre to me that digital data paid for in one place can’t be used in another.
And so I’ve found myself in the space of Times hacking, looking for ways to get content I want to read for a less exorbitant price than the Times wants to charge. (My current strategies: I am using my web subscription to dump articles to Instapaper, which I then read on my phone. Take that, Big Media!) Here, I join a large cadre of people who proudly post their tips for defrauding the Times so they can continue reading for free.
Let’s compare this situation to another media organization many New York Times readers rely on: public radio. No one writes articles bragging about how they avoided donating to NPR or how they get podcasts for free. In part, that’s because we don’t have to – public radio, for technical and historical reasons associated with the challenge of monetizing broadcast radio, is free by default, supported by voluntary donations. But there’s another reason: people love public radio, want to support it and feel guilty when they don’t.
I don’t intend to argue that the New York Times should become member supported. But I do want to make the case that they would benefit from thinking about the relationship public radio stations and shows have built with their members.
There’s a diagram that often gets drawn on napkins or whiteboards when media people get together: a Pareto, or long-tail curve, where the Y axis represents how engaged with content your readers are, and the X axis represents your reader population. Near the origin of the graph, the curve is very high – those are the small set of users who are deeply engaged with your content. Farther from the origin, as the curve flattens out, we have the majority of readers, who engage with your content occasionally. For the New York Times, it’s key to turn the folks on the left of the graph into subscribers and to make money from the right of the graph through ads. And as we head towards Peak Ad, it’s increasingly important to move readers across the paywall that separates the left and right side of the graph.
Public radio stations, producers and podcasters face a similar graph. In their case, it’s critical to get the left side of the graph to become members or make donations. But instead of dropping a paywall, they use a combination of gratitude and guilt to persuade their most engaged listeners to support their programming. When they do it well, their listeners feel terrific: Ira Glass urges listeners to defray WBEZ’s bandwidth costs for delivering This American Life online, telling us that if we could give more than $5, we’d pay not only our costs but those of listeners who don’t donate. And if we don’t donate? We feel guilty, but not criminal. The New York Times, which reminds me how many of my three free stories I’ve read on my phone, makes me feel like there’s a security guard trailing me to make sure I don’t stuff an extra New York Times article down my pants.
I suspect the business folks at the Times are operating under the assumption that there are only two places to be on their subscriber/revenue curve – you can be a subscriber and pay $300-800 a year, or you can be an outsider and cover a tiny fraction of your free riding with ad views. But there’s another option: the Times could start thinking of its readers in terms of subscribers, fans and passers-by. The Times won’t monetize passers-by, except through ads – these are folks who stumble onto the site occasionally and may not even realize they are reading Times content. That’s frustrating, but that’s how the web works. And the Times should certainly cultivate subscribers and encourage more fans to become subscribers. But they might do a better job of that by courting their fans, instead of locking them out.
Fans could be encouraged to support content on the Times not through a threat of locking them out, but by encouraging them to support the paper, and especially, the parts of the paper they value the most. When I donate to WNYC, I always take the opportunity to tell WNYC that I’m not a customer of the station as a whole, but of On The Media, my favorite outlet for smart media criticism. I have to think that some Times readers would love the opportunity to give to the paper and say, “Please don’t give this to Maureen Dowd. I’m giving in the hope of more Ta-Nehisi Coates op-eds.”
A New York Times that courted its fans would help fans track how much content they access from the Times, and perhaps, from other sources as well. It would take a suggestion from Doc Searls’s ideas about tracking usage of public radio and allowing users to donate to stations or programs that they listen to often. It might recognize that fans of the Times are fans of other publications, like The Guardian, the Christian Science Monitor or Planet Money, and band together with some of those other outlets to build a common tracking, membership and recommendations platform. (It would be very interesting for New York Times fans to discover they’re deeply dependent on the site’s content… or that they actually read other sources more than the times.) It could start treating fans who choose to subscribe as members, thanking them for making media accessible to others rather than making it clear that their content is only for those who pay.
Making news accessible for non-readers as well as readers is critical. News organizations have two bottom lines: they need to make enough money to keep the presses running, and they need to have a civic impact, holding the powerful responsible and giving citizens the information they need to participate in a democracy. As ad revenues decline, there’s a tendency for paywalled news sites to provide information only to the small group of people who subscribe to the paper. In the process, it’s possible that newspapers will lose their broader civic impact. If sites could find a way to get support from non-subscribers as fans, they could open their content to a broader audience and have more civic influence.
This would require some serious rethinking for the Times, and it’s quite possible they can support their reporting without making this change in the short term. But if we’re moving to a world where people are less dependent on a single media source, like the Times, and more inclined to pick and choose news from multiple sites, the Times will need to realize that fans can’t pay $300 to each content provider they want to support. Perhaps it’s time for the Times to start embracing and celebrating those fans, instead of alienating them.
It’s the 75th anniversary of the Nieman Foundation, and the Harvard-based program is bringing back generations of its fellows, mid-career journalists brought to Cambridge to study for a year, back to honor and celebrate the institution. One of the events on the program is the “Ninety Minute Nieman”, where organizers have invited a set of Cambridge-based professors to offer a taste of what happens in their classes in 10 minutes each. (7 professors, 10 minute lectures + the inevitable shuffling of papers = a 90 minute Nieman.)
I’m lucky enough to be one of those presenters. My friends at Nieman encouraged me to be provocative, as that’s the role I seem to have every year when I come and talk to new Nieman fellows. As someone with no experience in conventional newsrooms (save the summer I was the sports reporter for the Lewisboro Ledger at age 16) and as the co-founder of a global citizen media project, I tend to embody the anxieties and fears some mid-career journalists hold when they spend a year considering the future of their profession.
So why fight it? I decided to use my time on stage to make an argument I passionately believe: that journalism needs to help people be effective and engaged civic actors, and if it doesn’t, it shouldn’t expect to survive financially or in terms of influence. In the event that I’m struck by a flying shoe thrown by a journalist or editor in the audience and laid low, I’ve posted the text of what I hope to say.
I teach a class at MIT’s Media Lab called “News and Participatory Media” that’s become popular with Nieman scholars. I designed it as a class for engineers and software developers – the sorts of folks we expect to find at the Media Lab – with the goal of exposing them to different reporting problems so they understand some of the challenges journalists face, before working to build new tools for use in traditional and non-traditional newsrooms. Nieman fellows find it interesting, I think, because it exposes them both to different ways to think about reporting, and to students who think about news very differently. This leads to some interesting collaborations: a business reporter for one of Nigeria’s most prominent newspapers sought out one of my doctoral students for help scraping UK property databases to identify assets owned by kleptocratic Nigerian governors. We have a pretty good time.
Because the class includes reporters, who tend to be very passionate about the future of journalism, and geeks, who tend to be very passionate about social media and pretty skeptical about the current state of journalism, we have some interesting arguments over the course of a semester. I enjoy stoking these arguments, so I often bring in provocations to get us started. Which led me to bring in a remarkable column from Swiss novelist Rolf Dobelli.
Dobelli was pitching a new book, “The Art of Thinking Clearly” – which purports to use neuroscientific and cognitive science research to explain why it’s so hard to think clearly, and thinking as clearly as I can muster, I can’t recommend the book. But there’s one section, which was excerpted in The Guardian, titled “News is Bad for You” that’s a very worthwhile read. Dobelli claims that he gave up reading news four years ago and is a happier man for it: he describes news as a drug, a time-wasting habit that gives us the brief sense that we’re doing something productive and positive, but actually breaks our focus and distracts us while failing to explain the world in deep and meaningful ways or give us anything we, as readers, can do about what we read.
I figured this would spark a great conversation in our class: who would rise to defend the importance of staying informed in order to be an effective civic actor? To my great surprise, most of the class – the hacks and the hackers – were in agreement that Dobelli was more right than wrong. In part, this is because we all agreed that there’s a lot of badly written news out there – news that provides little background or context – and several of Dobelli’s critiques call out decontextualized, shallow. But the idea that had the most resonance for the class, and for me, was this: news is seldom connected to decisions we have to make as individuals, and that consuming news about situations we can’t influence will ultimately instill a sense of learned helplessness.
This is a particularly tricky argument for me, as my schtick for the past decade has been to argue that Americans need more information about the rest of the world. I just wrote a book that makes the case that we should rewire both news and social media to help us get a more cosmopolitan view of the world, so we can find connection and inspiration and solve global problems. But Dobelli has a point: the stories I’ve been trying to get Americans to pay attention to through Global Voices – repression and rebellion in Sudan, revolution in Tunisia, the rise of an African middle class – aren’t stories where readers have much agency. And part of the reason it’s so damned hard to get people to pay attention to events and voices that are geographically far away is that people rightly ask, “Why does this matter to me? Is this going to change how I work? How I shop? Even how I vote?” And the answer is, “probably not”.
I thought of Dobelli’s questions this summer, when I read Michael Schudson’s book, The Good Citizen. Schudson argues that the expectation for what a good citizen of America does has changed as our country has changed. In the post-independence period, the good citizen elected voted to elect the worthiest members of society to represent them – it was democracy by assent, largely noncompetitive. In the 19th century, good citizens were members of political parties not because of ideology, but largely because of personal and professional ties, and those parties, while competitive, competed on personality and organization, not on issues
Citizenship as many of us think about it is a product of the progressive era, Schudson argues. To overcome the party machines, progressives promoted the model of the informed citizen model, where muckraking newspapers uncovered malfeasance, where newspapers and magazines informed citizens on the issues of the day, where informed voters didn’t just elect representatives but voted directly on legislation through the ballot initiative process.
Schudson has at least two issues with the model of the informed citizen – he thinks it’s aspirational at best and farcical at worst, and he thinks its time passed somewhere around the 1960s. It’s impossible for a citizen to be informed on the range of issues that affect society – here he’s echoing some of Walter Lippman’s concerns from “Public Opinion” – and that’s not how the vast majority of us vote. And, he argues, since the 1960s, civic engagement that’s focused on making lasting change has focused on the courts, not on the ballot box – we’ve got a model of citizenship where lawsuits to establish rights and regulatory agencies that protect them are where much of the work of citizenship gets done
What I find helpful about Schudson’s argument is not his vision of rights-based citizenship, but the idea that the shape of citizenship can change over time. I think we’re experiencing one of those changes – I think we’re seeing a new form of civics that focuses on agency, on participation, and on trying to make an impact even at a very small scale.
It’s a version of citizenship that’s suspicious of opaque systems and institutions and is highly focused on seeing where effort and money goes – think of Kiva, which encourages people to loan money directly to developing world entrepreneurs, or Donors Choose, where people give to specific schools in need. Think of crowdfunding, where people support individual pieces of art they want to see made, rather than supporting arts institutions. Think of people who are politically engaged in campaigns on single issues – to arrest George Zimmerman or Joseph Kony – rather than to elect a party or a person. This is a version of citizenship that’s highly personal, highly decentralized, pointillist rather that sweeping in scope. It’s a vision of citizenship consistent with the changes we’ve seen with media, where everyone is creating media, whether it’s a Facebook update for friends or a blogpost that acts as an oped.
And just as we’ve discovered how difficult it is to navigate news and media in this space – how do we triangulate reports on Twitter and Facebook and government statements in a crisis like the Westgate mall attacks, especially when it turns out that official government sources are often less accurate than citizen sources – we’re discovering that it’s really hard to navigate this civic space. When tens of millions of American teens suddenly start demanding that the US put military forces in Uganda to arrest a warlord in the Central Africa Republic, do we treat this as a teen fad or as a serious policy concern? Do we use this as a chance to bring Ugandan voices into the dialog, or do we focus on the personal story of Jason Russell and his nervous breakdown? The KONY 2012 campaign gained an enormous amount of attention and, for a few weeks, shifted public debate – we need help figuring out whether it had impact, a question we should be asking both of campaigns that seek change by marshaling attention, and of journalism as a whole: what’s the civic impact?
This is a place where the news can help. We’re seeing a generation that’s not apathetic – they’re desperate to have impact. When we see them shying away from party politics, it’s not because they’re selfish or self-obsessed, it’s because they have a very hard time seeing how writing to their congressperson is going to change anything when congress lurches from shutdown to shutdown and passes historically few laws. People want to have impact, and the news can help.
We can help people understand where and how they can have impact. We can build on what David Bornstein is calling solutions journalism, featuring not just problems but the people and organizations trying to solve them – and we can do this in a way that probes at whether the solutions are as good as promised. We can link news stories to groups and campaigns trying to address the issues in those stories, as the Christian Science Monitor is doing in partnership with Shoutabout on their DC Decoder section. When we report on a crisis like Superstorm Sandy, we’re unafraid to drive readers to the Red Cross to help out – when my publication Global Voices reports on Kenya, we can point to ways people can help in the wake of the Westgate shooting, whether that’s to groups providing assistance to families, or to civil rights organizations now organizing to protect Kenya’s Somali population against an inevitable backlash.
What we cannot do is keep reporting news that keeps our readers informed but ineffective. There’s just too much else for them to pay attention to, whether it’s entertainment content or self-reinforcing, comfortable, partisan opinion. We’re losing the news not just because the financial models have changed, but because the civic models have changed. I doubt there’s a person in this room who got into the business for the money – everyone I know is motivated by a vision of public service. I worry that we’re failing to do public service because the way the public participates has changed. If we’re stuck in a paradigm where we inform citizens, then declare our work done, we’re failing in our public service duties.
By now, there’s any number of people in the audience waiting to ask the question, “Isn’t this advocacy journalism?” Since our forum doesn’t let you ask questions, let me go ahead and answer that for you: hell yes. And we should get used to it, because we’re all already doing advocacy journalism. Now that it’s incredibly easy to produce and disseminate information, what’s scarce is attention. Whenever we make a news judgement to put a story on our front page or deep inside our papers or sites, when we decide to cover a story in Malawi or in Mattapan, we’re doing advocacy journalism. We’re a part of a complicated ecosystem where everyone – activists promoting a cause, companies promoting a product, reporters delivering news – are competing for attention, and news organizations are very powerful actors within that system.
We’re advocating for the idea that what we’re covering is worth someone’s attention, and is worth more attention that something we’ve chosen not to cover. What Laura and Chris Amico have done with Homicide Watch is advocacy journalism at its very best – they advocate for the idea that everyone killed in DC or Chicago deserves to be reported on, whether they were black or white, rich or poor. When Godwin Nnanna reports on Nigerian governors buying mansions in Mayfair with money looted from Nigeria’s treasury, he’s committing advocacy journalism, just as he should, demanding that kleptocrats be held responsible for their crimes. When the Guardian puts Glen Greenwald on the front page, asking hard questions about government surveillance gone mad, it’s most certainly advocacy journalism and it’s advocacy journalism that we need if we want journalism to survive in the face of unconstitutional actions that changed forever our ability to assure sources that their identities will remain confidential and that they can talk to the press without fear of losing their jobs.
The problem isn’t journalism that advocates – it’s journalism that advocates a sadly limited set of options: vote for this guy or for that guy. We need journalism that helps us understand how we can participate and be effective, whether it’s through an election, a petition, a boycott, a new business model or technology. We need to ask whether our stories are teaching our readers to be helpless, or helping them become effective citizens.
My goal in teaching is to help my students see things from a different perspective, whether or not they end up agreeing with me – I aim to provoke more than persuade and hope I’ve done the former if not the latter. Please keep sending me Niemans.
More than a billion people a month visit YouTube to watch videos.
Sometimes, those billion people watch the same video. More often, they don’t.
YouTube shares information about what videos are popular in different cities and different countries, and for the US, offers a tool to see what videos are popular with different age groups and genders.
We were interested in seeing what videos were popular in different countries, and especially, what videos were popular in more than one country. For the past six months, we’ve gathered data from YouTube to understand What We Watch. The videos we feature are videos that appear on YouTube’s Trends dashboard. These are the videos trending in any of 61 countries – they are not necessarily the most popular of all time, or even most popular that month, but they are receiving a lot of attention in a short period of time. (Gilad Lotan’s explanation of trending topics on Twitter is useful for understanding that distinction.)
What We Watch is a browser for popular YouTube videos, built by Ed Platt, Rahul Bhargava and Ethan Zuckerman at MIT’s Center for Civic Media. (Rahul did data acquisition, Ed did visualization and Ethan waved his hands and requested features inappropriately late in the design process.)
Click on a country, and you’ll get a list of videos that have trended in that country, and a map that shows other countries that watch the same videos. Click a tab, and you can see videos popular just in that country, and not in other countries. Click on a second country, and you’ll see what top videos the countries have in common. Click a video itself, and you’ll get the video itself and a map of the countries where it was popular.
The results are often surprising. The US has more trending videos in common with Germany and the Netherlands than with near neighbors Canada and Mexico. One of the US’s top videos is a Punjabi music video that’s also got an audience in India and Germany. And a 90 second ad for Google Hangouts is surprisingly popular around the world… though hasn’t trended in the US, it’s apparent target market.
While What We Watch is a fun way to navigate the wealth of content available on YouTube, there are serious research questions behind the project as well. In Rewire, I argue that a network that connects computers throughout the globe doesn’t guarantee that content – like videos – will spread across borders of language, culture and nation. Some of what we’re finding on What We Watch supports that contention, and some challenges it.
The music video for “Roar” by Katy Perry offers evidence that some videos find truly global audiences – the video is has trended from Peru to the Philippines, and one of the top videos in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Other videos find regional, but not global audiences – take P-Square’s “Personally”, which was in the top 10 in Nigeria for 17% of dates we tracked, and is popular in Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, and Senegal… but no where outside of sub-Saharan Africa. And some videos never leave home: Brazil’s top trending video, a humorous ad for a phone company that requires no translation, doesn’t show up on the top charts for any other country.
I’ve been deeply influenced by Pippa Norris’s work on the spread of culture and values across national borders, specifically her book “Cosmopolitan Communications” with Ronald Inglehart. They argue that people tend to overestimate the Katy Perry effect in which US culture sweeps the globe, leveling everything in its path. In some cases, people encounter another culture and reject it violently (the Taliban model), shape it and incorporate it into a new hybrid (the curry model) or simply decide it’s not for them (the firewall theory.) We see evidence for three of the four in our data – it’s hard to see the Taliban model because violent rejection would likely mean banning YouTube, which gives us no data to measure.
We also get some hints on what countries have videos in common. Language matters: countries in Latin America tend to have videos in common with other Spanish-speaking countries. But Brazil and Portugal don’t share much content (and Brazil’s viewing habits have little overlap with anyone, offering another theory: if you have a big enough domestic internet, you may develop your own, insular internet culture, as in Japan as well.)
We got very interested in countries that share content with lots of other countries. To identify these countries, we used a metric called “betweenness centrality“. Imagine the countries as nodes on a graph, connected by links that represent videos in common. If you calculate paths from each node of the graph to each other, nodes that many paths move through have high betweenness centrality – they are bridges through the network.
The countries with highest betweenness centrality are United Arab Emirates and Singapore. Both have lots of weak ties to other countries, which means they may act as cultural bridges between unconnected countries – we can imagine a video popular in India making its way to Yemen through the United Arab Emirates. It’s interesting to note that Singapore and UAE both have massive populations of expatriates and “guest workers” (over 90% of the population in UAE and over 40% in Singapore). Culture travels with people, and it’s no surprise that Indians in the UAE would want to watch videos from home, or that Poles living in the UK mean there are Polish-language videos in the UK’s top ten.
What we don’t know yet is whether videos spread through the networks: i.e., does a video made in India spread to Yemen through UAE, for example? To test that, we’ll need to watch how a popular video spreads over time, and, ideally, we’d want to know where a video originates. That’s harder than you might think. We’ve looked at the possibility of hand-coding the videos as to their nation of origin, so we can see whether a UK video might appear on the charts first in Australia or Poland. But we’re flummoxed by the fact that many of the popular videos aren’t easily pinned down to one nation or another – take this ad, popular in both Russia and Ukraine. It’s a Nike ad about street soccer, which suggests we should attribute it to the US, where the company is based… but the ad’s in Russian, clearly aimed at urban audiences in Eastern Europe and not for a US market. Do we code it as US, Russian or global?
And then, of course, there’s this ad for Google Hangouts. It’s a sweet and sappy 90 second story about a girl who moves to the big city and stays in touch with her dad via Hangouts. The accents are American and it appears to be an ad designed for the US market, but it has trended around the world, including in many countries with high rates of emigration for work or education. Google may have wanted to encourage American twenty-somethings to connect with their parents, but the message seems to resonate for people around the world.
Please experiment with What We Watch and let us know what you think – you can post comments here about anything interesting you discover, or research questions you think we should ask. The code and data behind the system is available on GitHub should you wish to build your own, or to see what we did. One caution for researchers – we are not showing videos that have been taken down by Google, for copyright or other reasons. In some cases, this means we’re removing many videos from top lists. We hope, in the long run, to show the metadata of those videos, but for now, they’re just not in the set, which means the data is not entirely representative of what we’ve collected.
Charlie DeTar defended his doctoral dissertation this afternoon at the MIT Media Lab. Charlie is a student in Chris Schmandt’s Mobility and Speech group, but has also been an active member of my group, Center for Civic Media, where he’s done very important work including Between the Bars, a platform that allows inmates in some US prisons to blog via the postal service. Charlie is an incredibly thoughtful guy, who takes the time to read deeply and develop nuanced understanding of issues before he builds new technologies.
His work on his doctoral thesis reflects this thoughtfulness – in building “Intertwinkles“, a platform to assist in consensus decisionmaking, Charlie conducted a deep dive into the nature of democracy, decisionmaking, group behavior and technology to assist group decisionmaking. His talk today outlined that work as context for his intervention.
Willow Brugh attended the talk and her visualization of Charlie’s remarks is below. My notes follow below her illustration.
Charlie’s remarks start with the question: “How much democracy do you have left?”
He shows a photo series of people holding papers with X marks on them – the marks represent the number of presidential elections the person expects to have left. The message – we don’t have very much democracy, if democracy means voting every four years. “Most of us wouldn’t volunteer to be governed by kings or dictators,” Charlie offers, but we face lots of non-democratic rule in real life: bosses, landlords, banks, other powerful institutions we have little influence over.
High profile, democratically-governed activist organizations tend to have short lifespans. Even long-lasting movements like Occupy tend to be relatively short lived. But collectives and cooperatives use highly participatory methods and many have been in existence for decades. Twinkles – the practice of waving your fingers to show approval, non-verbally, for a statement – is a practice that originated in the 1970s and thrives today within collectives and cooperatives. But the in-person nature of collective and cooperative governance can be slow, expensive and draining. Charlie’s core research question is whether we can design online tools for democratic consultation which result in more just and effective organizations.
To answer this question, Charlie has build a set of tools to support consensus decision-making processes, documenting the participatory design process used to develop the tools and evaluated these tools in their use by real-world groups. He’s also done deep investigative work exploring the history of non-hierarchicalism, consensus, and decisionmaking with computers.
Non-hierarchicalism looks like a simple concept at first glance – it represents forms of governance that are decentralized, flat, leaderless, or horizontal. But questions immediately arise: are facilitators imposing a covert hierarchy?
Charlie suggests we consider decentralization, using a definition from Yochai Benkler: in decentralized systems, many agents work coherently despite the fact that they do not rely on reducing the number of people participating in decisionmaking. While the number of people does not decrease, most decentralized systems require some centralization, as Charlie discusses by examining multiple models. The blogging platform WordPress is decentralized because you can download, customize and run the code, effectively becoming a chapter or franchise for WordPress. With Wikipedia, different sets of people work on different problems, editing different articles, in what can be thought of as a subsidiary model. In BitTorrent, rather than decentralizing resources, the founders have declare a protocol that determines how we interact, enabling decentralization through federation.
Each decentralization has a corresponding centralization:
- Bittorrent decentralizes servers via a centralized protocol
- WordPress decentralizes hosting via a centralized codebase
- Wikipedia decentralizes editors through a centralized database and policies
- Consensus decentralizes authority through centralizing procedures
Consensus decisionmaking is a field of governance, Charlie tells us, that works to avoid three tyrannies:
- The tyranny of the majority, when the mob beats you up
- The tyranny of the minority, where small group prevent functioning or dominate decisionmaking
- The tyranny of structurelessness, where elimination of overt structure leads to covert structure via dominant personalities, racism, sexism and other forms of dominance.
Consensus decisionmaking is the process of consulting stakeholders in a way that seeks to avoid these tyrannies. Charlie outlines seven forms of consensus, including corporate, scientific, standards, consociationalism (power-sharing), mob, assembly, focusing specifically on affinity consensus, groups of people who’ve chosen to work together on problems of common interest. He offers a matrix for how each form of consensus handles open membership, egalitarianism, formal process, and the binding nature of decisions. For instance, a corporate department that practices consensus decisionmaking still has a boss, and may not always make binding decisions. Not all groups are open – if I want to participate in the decisionmaking of Charlie’s housing cooperative, I’m going to be refused admission.
In the process of building Intertwinkles, Charlie has developed a long list of protocols that people use to enable consensus decisionmaking, including various facilitation tools, meeting phases, hand signals, roles and formats. Intertwinkles implements several of these protocols in an online environment.
To understand the history of digital tools to assist with decisionmaking, Charlie takes us back to J.C.R. Licklidder, who talked about decisionmaking with computers as early as 1962. Douglas Englebart, whose “mother of all demos” introduced many of the ideas that have dominated the next 50 years of computing, began developing methods of computer-aided decisionmaking in the late 1960s. The field was formalized as “group decision support systems”, generating a huge amount of scholarship around three systems, generally dedicated computing systems installed in “decision-support rooms” at corporations and universities. While these systems were very engineering-heavy, they often used very similar techniques to those used in consensus-oriented groups. However, it is difficult to extrapolate from the scholarship, because the vast majority of studies used artificial, composed groups, not groups with existing histories and patterns. Most were face to face and most were one-shot experiments. These methodological limitations make it hard to extrapolate to understand the utility of these tools for affinity groups, which have important existing relationships, group histories and policies.
Charlie notes that these early group decisionmaking support tools tended to provide all services – including email – to their users, because they were huge, expensive systems that often represented an organization’s first exposure to digital communication. Now systems are smaller and decentralized, including tools like Doodle (used for meeting scheduling) and Loomio, a new system designed to support discussion of proposals in forums and voting on those proposals.
While these systems are promising, Charlie hopes we can do more. He notes that Joseph McGrath put forward a helpful typology of group tasks in his 1984 book, Groups, Interaction and Performance. Ideally, we’d want a system that helps groups engage in each of these tasks – generating ideas, generating plans, executing tasks, etc.
Intertwinkles began as a participatory design project with Boston cooperative housing groups. Charlie recruited six houses from 29 collective and cooperative housing groups and hired three research assistants who were “native participants”, residents in the houses. 45 people participated, overall.
The groups he worked with were involved throughout a field trial process, from pre-interviews to help understand how groups made decision, through an extensive training session on the tools and for 8-10 weeks of usage, as Charlie and his team iterated to improve the tools with feedback from users. The process involved both the creation of new tools and a pair of games designed to inspire conversation and reflection on group dynamics, Flame War (which models decisionmaking over email) and Moontalk (a realtime game that models limited communication channels). More information on both games is available on the Intertwinkles site.
Charlie offers brief overviews of three tools. Dotstorm is based around sticky note brainstorming, and supports visual thinkers through stickies with drawings and with photos taken through laptops or other devices. The system supports real-time collaboration and sharing of ideas and runs on any contemporary web browser. Resolve supports a rolling proposal process, which allows one member of a group to propose an idea and others to expand, refine or block it, eventually voting on accepting it. The system maintains a rich history of a proposal and uses a notification system to keep participants involved in the process, but lets participants use email as their channel for free-form discussion. Points of Unity is a tool designed to help come up with a short list of values or statements that a group agrees with, which many groups find useful as a mutually agreed-upon common ground.
Many of the features of Intertwinkles are platform features shared across tools. There’s a group-centric sharing model that gives people access to documents and resources once they join the group. Membership is reciprocal (like membership in Facebook) and overlapping (you are friends with everyone in the group), a model that Charlie hasn’t seen in Facebook, Twitter or other systems. Everything is shared publicly for discrete periods of time, which lowers the barrier to entry to the system, but then reverts documents to private to avoid spam, etc. Users can take actions on behalf of other members of the group, recognizing that not everyone is active online constantly. There is rich, semantic event reporting, which allows for a “quantified group” analysis, understanding and describing a group’s behavior in quantifiable terms about participation. Intertwinkles is built on a plug-in architecture. Core services handle search, authentication, twinkles, events, notices, groups – other features plug into those core services, which makes it possible to develop radically new tools without building up the other essential components.
For the system to work, Charlie believes that participants need extensive training. What’s key is getting to the point where everyone is confident that everyone else is comfortable with the tools. To remind collectives of the tool, Charlie distributed a colorful pillow, a Twinkle Plush Star, as “an ambient reminder of the system and its uses.”
Five of the six groups used the tool, completing 66 processes and making 2155 unique edits and visits. One group didn’t use Intertwinkles beyond training, and one reported neutral to negative experiences, while the other four groups had generally positive reactions. Charlie measured the participation of each cooperative member with the system because he worried there might be uneven participation. His analysis suggests quite even participation, similar to what you might get face to face.
In examining how collectives used the system, Charlie reminds us of the idea of “technology in action”, proposed by proponents of structuration theory. This theory suggests that designers build tools for certain tasks, but the tools get used for whatever tasks a group wants to carry out, which leads to unexpected outcomes, sometimes contrary to designer’s intentions. Charlie makes his intentions clear: he wanted to make non-participation apparent, to increase awareness of conflict, to make group processes explicit, and to handle facilitation “out of band”.
He sees a correlation in satisfaction with the tool and group structure. Groups that had more confrontive approaches to decisionaking and more formal approaches to decisionmaking had better results with the tools. The group that was least satisfied tends to be avoidant of conflict and privileges action over speaking. A group that found the tools most useful makes participation in house meetings mandatory, has explicit channels for communication on conflict, and extensive house norms. This highly structured group was able to take advantage of the system in ways less structured groups did not.
Charlie sees room to improve the tools: more work on in-band facilitation, in-band training,instrumenting the platform for online learning, and building an ecosystem of developers. He plans to continue working on the tool and already sees possible alliances to build the platform in conjunction with others building tools for group decisionmaking. But he also sees value in the theoretical approach, suggesting that design research is powerful as a form of sociology and a potential quantitative and qualitative method for studying group behavior.
Hal Abelson’s report on MIT’s actions around Aaron Swartz’s prosecution was released last week. I was on vacation and offline – I returned home Sunday and read the report and some of the responses to it.
I certainly see why Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman called it a whitewash. For those hoping that Abelson and his colleagues would identify faults in MIT’s behavior and take responsibility for inaction, the report is deeply disappointing. One of the strongest statements in the report makes in conclusion is, ultimately, quite weak:
“…let us all recognize that, by responding as we did, MIT missed an opportunity to demonstrate the leadership we pride ourselves on.”
That’s a bit of an understatement. The report includes an entire section (Part IV) on opportunities MIT missed, places where MIT could have intervened and might have helped prevent a tragedy. While the report correctly notes that we can’t know how things would have turned out had MIT responded to Robert Swartz’s repeated requests for the Institute to make a statement similar to the one JSTOR made, it’s clear that MIT didn’t just miss an opportunity – it consciously and repeatedly decided not to take any actions that would have helped Aaron Swartz make a successful defense while cooperating fully with requests from prosecutors.
As such, I don’t think the report is a “whitewash”. I don’t think Abelson is trying to conceal details that cast MIT in a bad light – it’s hard to read the report without being deeply disappointed with how MIT makes decisions. By my reading, the report documents a troubling culture of leadership at the university, one where adherence to the (ultimately flawed) idea of “neutrality” overrides making a nuanced decision about how to respond to aggressive prosecution under a poorly written law.
There’s lots I’m angry about with the report. It ends with questions for the MIT community to consider, rather than recommendations. This isn’t the fault of Abelson and colleagues, but the ambit given Abelson by MIT’s President, Rafael Reif. While the report makes clear that MIT cooperated more thoroughly with prosecutors than with Aaron’s defense (and carefully explains why MIT’s “neutral” stance ends up favoring the side that had more power in the equation), it doesn’t lay blame on MIT’s general counsel or any other individuals for MIT’s failure of leadership.
For me, the biggest disappointment is a refrain throughout the report that blames the MIT community for failing to draw more attention to Swartz’s prosecution. In Part V, the authors note, “Before Aaron Swartz’s suicide, the community paid scant attention to the matter, other than during the period immediately following his arrest. Few students, faculty, or alumni expressed concerns to the administration.”
It’s certainly true that there was more anger and attention in the wake of Aaron’s suicide than there was during the indictment and period leading towards trial. But it’s not true that the community was unaware of Aaron’s plight. As the report documents, Joi Ito, director of MIT’s Media Lab, asked MIT’s leadership to see if Aaron’s case could be settled as a “family matter” within the MIT community. Two other faculty members spoke to the administration and Robert Swartz, who works for the Media Lab, approached MIT multiple times, seeking a statement that MIT did not believe Swartz should be prosecuted for his actions.
There are reasons why those of us who were aware of Aaron’s case didn’t lobby MIT more loudly. As the report notes, just following the statement about “scant attention”: “Those most familiar with Aaron Swartz and the issues that greatly concerned him were divided in their views of the propriety of his action downloading JSTOR files, and fearful of harming his situation by taking public or private stands.” This fear was compounded by the fact that it was very difficult for Aaron and those closest to him to talk about the case without creating communications that could be subpoenaed by the prosecutor, which led him to discuss the case with very few people. Also, as the report reveals, an early attempt to draw action to the case online led to an angry reaction from prosecutor Steve Heymann. Given that Aaron and his team were seeking a plea deal with a prosecutor who already escalating charges against Aaron, it’s understandable that people were worried about harming Aaron’s situation by making noise.
Blaming the MIT community’s lack for response for MIT’s studied inaction is, for me, is an embarrassing evasion of responsibility, an admission that MIT was less interested in doing the right thing than in avoiding the sort of negative publicity it faced when it failed to support Star Simpson when she faced prosecution for wearing an LED-enhanced hoodie to Logan Airport.
It’s helpful to understand why MIT’s leadership did what it did. It’s understandable that, before they knew who was accessing JSTOR that they sought help from the Cambridge PD, which ended up bringing the Secret Service into the case. But for well over a year, MIT knew that its network had been accessed by a committed activist who was most likely making a political statement, not attempting to sell JSTOR to the highest bidder. They were extensively lobbied by a long-time employee who made a simple request for MIT to make a statement similar to the statement JSTOR made. They heard from MIT professors and from scholars outside the community, yet they clung to a stance of neutrality that, as Abelson’s report notes, systematically favored the prosecution over the defense.
The New York Times reports that MIT was “cleared” of wrongdoing in Aaron Swartz’s prosecution and death. I think the report presents MIT with two equally serious charges: a failure to act ethically, and a failure to show compassion. According to Abelson’s report, MIT’s president, chancellor and Office of the General Counsel did the minimum – and sometimes less than the minimum, when they failed to respond to defense subpoenas – in allowing Aaron Swartz and his team to mount a defense. In the process, they ignored the pleas of a long-time colleague who was desperately working to defend his son.
MIT has a different president than it did for most of the Swartz case, and the ball is now in President Reif’s court to change a culture that was unwilling to take moral leadership in the case of Aaron’s prosecution. For those of us who are outraged by the inaction of MIT’s leadership in this case, we face Albert Hirschman’s famous choice: exit or voice. My friend Quinn Norton, Aaron’s partner when he was arrested, recently tweeted: “I will never work with MIT, I will never attend events at MIT, I will never support MIT’s work, and I hope dearly that my MIT friends leave.”
I would hope that there’s another option: making clear that members of MIT’s community believe that MIT has responsibilities beyond “neutral” compliance, and working to change the culture that so badly failed Aaron. Evidently, it’s up to the MIT community – and the broader internet community – to make sure this report isn’t the final word on MIT’s role in Aaron’s prosecution and to ensure that Abelson’s questions in the report do not remain unanswered. I hope that President Reif’s promise to engage with Abelson’s questions leads to real change in an institution that has much to answer for, and I plan to push as hard as I can from the inside to ensure that MIT’s response to Aaron’s death does not end with this report.