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.
It’s nearing a year since my book, Rewire, was published. I’m thrilled that some critics have liked it, and that it’s had some recognition, notably from the lovely folks at Zocalo, who are hosting me at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art this evening to speak about the book. Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking about Rewire with Italian journalists and activists at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, where friends Luca diBiase and Jillian York were kind enough to share the stage with me and discuss the potentials and limitations of digital cosmopolitanism and the ways in which the internet does and doesn’t connect our conversations.
The most satisfying outcome of the book, though, has been working with colleagues to build new tools that might help us break out of our cognitive bubbles and experience a wider world. Last year, Nathan Matias and Sarah Szalavitz developed a tool called Follow Bias that examines who you follow on Twitter and offers a simple overview in terms of men, women and brand and bots. If, like me, you discover you’re following a lot more men than women, Follow Bias can act as an encouragement to broaden your horizons and find new, remarkable women to follow.
— Hanan Abdel Meguid (@hmeguid) May 7, 2014
I showed the tool to Hanan Meguid, an Egyptian tech entrepreneur, the other day and she immediately tweeted me to alert me that she was a remarkable woman I should be following. And now I am.
Follow Bias includes a basic recommendation engine, suggesting women other users recommend I follow, and alerting me that I’d need to follow 93 women to raise my personal statistics by 5%. It’s not hard to imagine a version of the tool that’s expanded so it helps you see and address geographic or other biases in who you’re paying attention to on Twitter.
Catherine d’Ignazio’s Terra Incognita tracks geography, not gender. If you’re a lucky alpha tester of the tool, Terra Incognita lives in your Chrome browser and keeps track of what news stories you read and what cities are mentioned in them. When you open a new tab in Chrome, you’re greeted with the map of a city you’ve not read about and suggestions for articles you might read about the city. There’s a game layer to the system – you can gain credit for reading the most articles about a city, or for suggesting the best reading for that city.
Part of the challenge of building Terra Incognita has been finding appropriate, engaging readings associated with a thousand global cities. (Each UN member nation is represented by at least one city, even if it’s tiny. After that, the list includes cities with urban populations of over 100,000 or so.) It’s one thing to catch a glimpse of a city on a map, and something significantly more complicated to find a reading that offers an introduction to what makes a city unique and worth knowing about.
Since Catherine began working on this project, my attention has been drawn to projects that give you a glimpse of what life looks like in an unfamiliar part of the world. Part of what makes Terra Incognita such a beautiful system is that (once you’ve installed it), it offers you a glimpse of somewhere unfamiliar every time you open a web browser. These invitations to wander, I think, are all too absent from a vision of the Internet that’s often obsessed with efficiency, with giving you exactly what you want, when you want it.
My friend Kevin Slavin and his students have been working on a poetic and beautiful project based around the idea of multiple, sustained glimpses of another person’s life. 20 Day Stranger is a mobile phone application that matches you with a geographically different stranger. For twenty days, you and your partner catch glimpses of each other’s life, photos selected from Flickr and Foursquare that illustrate places you’ve been near, without revealing your exact location. The ap tells your partner when you’re moving or still to provide context, but offers no interaction with your partner until the end of the 20 days, at which point you have an opportunity to send a single message. Kevin’s partner on the project is the Dalai Lama Center on Ethics and Transformative Values, suggesting that there’s a deep significance to watching – and, perhaps, caring – about someone from afar.
The notion of offering a glimpse into another part of the world is not a new one: “video wormholes” are continually open videoconferencing channels that attempt to link distant offices or workspaces, allowing casual interaction between people who work together but would rarely meet in the halls. There’s one in the corner of MIT’s State Center, connecting a lunchroom there to one at Stanford. I’d love to do a project that connects similar but distant locations across languages and cultures – a KFC in Canton, Ohio with one in Guangzhou. But I suspect some of the most effective tools for unexpected encounters with a wide world are inadvertent.
I heard about Larry Larson’s 4’33” ap on TLDR, On the Media’s short-form net culture podcast. (I’ve been publicly revealed as a podcast addict this week, so there’s no reason to keep hiding my habit.) 4’33”, of course, is John Cage’s most famous composition, a piece of music where the sound is the “silence” of the performance venue, which is far from silent (as all spaces are.) The 4’33” ap invites users to record a performance of 4’33” in their own space and upload the results.
The 4’33” ap site features a map of recordings, each a 4’33” snippet of silence… which often turns out to be the fascinating and intricate background noise from a different corner of the world. (You need to purchase the $0.99 ap to enjoy the silence. Yes, it was all I ever wanted, all I ever needed.) It feels a bit odd to assemble a playlist of silences, but the net effect is a much quieter version of exploring We Are Happy From, the remarkable collection of georemixes of Pharrell’s “Happy”.
I’m a country mouse: the only city I’ve ever lived in is Accra, and that was twenty years ago. I’ve never developed the big city habits of averting my eyes from an unblinded window. When I stay in big city highrises, I inadvertently end up staring into other people’s living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms. I think we need ways to catch glimpses of each others’ lives, locally and around the world, that somehow balance the power of serendipitous connection and protection from the creepiness of voyeurism. I’m glad smart people are working on the problem.
Hugo Barra is a long-time veteran of the technology industry. Raised in Brazil, he came to MIT in 1996 and completed B.S. and M.Eng. degrees in computer science and electrical engineering before joining wireless software company Lobby7. From there, he joined Nuance Communications and later, Google, working on the Android team, where he rose to Vice President of Android Product Management, becoming one of the public faces of the company, introducing new phones and software to audiences at trade shows.
Most people, even those who follow tech closely, didn’t know who Barra was until he announced in August of last year that he was leaving Google for Xiaomi, a Chinese manufacturer of smartphones. The departure of a non-Chinese Google executive for a Chinese company was surprising enough to merit coverage throughout the tech press and in the Guardian, where Charles Arthur saw the move as a coup for Xiaomi and reason to ask questions about Google’s strategic leadership around Android.
Stories about Barra’s job change took on a tabloid quality when writers began speculating that his real reason for leaving Google was a romantic rivalry. Business Insider reported that Barra had been involved with a Google Glass product manager, Amanda Rosenberg, who was now dating Sergey Brin, and Sydney’s Morning Herald reported that Barra’s departure from Google was a “collateral casualty” of the complicated love life of Google’s founder.
After all, a star executive at America’s most-admired company would never leave for a Chinese phone company because he saw opportunity there. Putting the Pacific between you and a vengeful software billionaire is one of the few logical explanations for an American to want to work in China.
Barra patiently explained to reporters that he’d come to Xiaomei to work with Bin Lin, the head of Xiaomi, who had been the head of Google’s mobile engineering unit in China. While he was at Google, Barra was impressed with the ways Lin’s team had extended and modified Android, and frequently brought Xiaomi products to the Android team to show off their functionality.
Barra re-entered the tech press limelight in December when he spoke at Le Web in Paris. His speech was, unsurprisingly, a celebration of the new corporation he joined. But it was, more broadly, a education for European and US techies on the wonders of the Chinese technology industry. Business Insider’s crib of his talk makes Barra sound like a latter-day Marco Polo, returning to Venice with tales of 600 million internet users, 15% annual growth rates and billion dollar IPOs.
Hugo Barra at his favorite dumpling joint in Beijing
On the rare occasions American geeks think about the internet in China, they tend to think about the Great Firewall and the 50 Cent Party. This focus on censorship – which is an important fact of life on the Chinese internet – tends to blind Americans to the creativity and vitality of the Chinese internet. (This 2010 article by David Talbot for Technology Review, China’s Internet Paradox, explores this idea in depth.) As a result, we are surprised to learn that China’s most popular social networking site, QZone, has over 600 million users. That Jingdong, an Amazon-like online store offers three hour delivery in major Chinese cities. That tools like WeChat and MoMo offer functionality that’s surprisingly different from social networking models offered by most American and European social networking tools.
I used the story of Barra and his reports from China to open a recent talk on Rewire at Harvard’s Coop. Our surprise that there’s a thriving and interesting tech industry in China strikes me as a symptom of a larger phenomenon, the ways in which we are insulated from information from places that are culturally distant, even if we’re tightly tied to those nations in terms of migration and trade.
I give dozens of examples in Rewire of ways in which barriers of language, culture and interest keep us from learning about what’s happening in other parts of the world. But the lack of knowledge of Chinese internet tools is a wonderful example I wish I’d included. QZone, with over 600 million users, is represented in the English-language Wikipedia with a 3k stub, while Twitter, with a slightly smaller userbase, has a massive, 140kb article whose table of contents is longer than the QZone entry.
When I speak about Rewire, I try to explain why I think it’s important that increased internet connectivity doesn’t inevitably lead to increased interest in or understanding of other cultures. I talk about the challenge of solving massive international problems like global warming without international cooperation, or the missed opportunities to think creatively by maximizing cognitive diversity and approaching problems from different points of view.
But Hugo Barra’s story offers a much more straightforward motivation: there’s a ton of opportunity in China’s tech industry and Americans and Europeans will be shut out of that opportunity if they’re not aware of what’s going on. Americans may not be especially interested in building tools for Chinese users, but Chinese companies are looking aggressively at overseas markets. Xiaomi recruited Barra precisely because they are excited about expanding beyond manufacturing phones for Chinese markets.
There’s a massive information asymmetry because the US and China right now. Teams of volunteer translators work to render US and European political and tech media into Chinese – one community, Yeeyan, features more than 100,000 registered translators. Other teams work to subtitle US television programming in Chinese within 12 hours of broadcast. Information in the other direction is brokered by small, underfunded, hardworking projects like Tea Leaf Nation, which provide great translation and contextualization of Chinese stories for the small audiences interested in them.
Perhaps Barra’s celebration of Chinese internet culture will inspire others to follow his lead and work with Chinese technology companies. Perhaps others will learn what’s exciting about the tech industry in Brazil or Kenya. At the very least, Barra’s story might remind us that there’s a huge world out there we don’t hear enough about and that it takes work on our part to learn more.
The title comes from a post on Transom.org, the community newspaper of the Amerian public radio community, by Nate DiMeo. DiMeo is a brilliant freelance producer and the creator of “The Memory Palace”, a beautiful and bittersweet podcast about history and storytelling. At the end of an essay about the podcast and the financial struggles to support it, DiMeo offers this observation:
“Audio never goes viral.
There’s something much more intentional about choosing to listen to something than choosing to click on a video or article. If you posted the most incredible story—literally, the most incredible story that has ever been told since people have had the ability to tell stories, it will never, ever get as many hits as a video of a cat with a moustache.”
You can tell how maddening this is for DiMeo and for many other people creating innovative and important audio. We are in the midst of a moment of extreme creativity in the world of audio production. Podcasting has made it reasonably easy for a competent producer to share original audio with an audience of potentially millions, but generally, dozens, of listeners. Some of these podcasts are finding audiences on public radio through new distributors, like the Public Radio Exchange. But many aren’t. And while there are numerous stories of people who’ve become briefly, sometimes uncomfortably, famous through viral videos (a conference, ROFLCon, exists solely to examine the phenomenon of internet famous), there are very few examples of internet memes that are audio-only.
Alcorn examines this phenomenon structurally, considering the weaknesses in the audio ecosystem that make audio less likely to spread online than text or video. Audio is often something we encounter when we’re doing something else – driving, walking, working with our hands, cooking dinner. As a result, we’re less likely to remember to share that experience online. When we do share, we’re thwarted by the fact that audio is difficult to embed, tied up in different proprietary players. Unlike text, audio is hard to skim. And the “tastemakers” who are in the business of amplifying viral content don’t have a good source for potentially viral audio to audition and spread.
All these are good points. But I wonder if Alcorn and DiMeo are limiting the conversation by focusing on “going viral”. For DiMeo, the failure of audio to go viral is part of a larger phenomenon, that high-quality audio storytelling doesn’t receive the audience it deserves and that the small size of the audience means that it’s exceedingly hard to make a living. DiMeo, in his Transom piece, explains that he’s had book offers that didn’t pan out because he is insufficiently famous – “going viral”, which is a form of unexpected (and sometimes unwanted) fame is something that would be deeply helpful to his career.
But “going viral” is a phenomenon built on passing on content that requires little investment by the viewer. It takes a few seconds to realize that something interesting is going on in the “Harlem Shake”, and if that’s your thing, you might spend a few minutes more finding different versions of the video, perhaps going further to read critiques of the video or the appropriation of the song and dance. But the whole experience is no more than a glance.
Glance-based media is perfect for a world where we’re inundated with choices and forced to make up our mind very quickly. But, as Alcorn argues, it’s hard to glance at audio – by its very definition, audio takes time.
But that may be why audio is so important in a viral age.
The first assignment I ask my students in News and Participatory Media to complete is a media diary, tracking everything they read, watch and listen to over the course of a week. It’s a helpful assignment, shocking the career journalists into the realization that most college students never read print media. I ask students to track not only what mediums they encounter, but what kinds of stories, and to think about whether they were following up on existing interests or learning about new topics.
What’s been most surprising to me is that many participants list radio or podcasts where they get the most international news, and where they get the most unexpected and surprising news over the course of the week. Often, this is because people are listening when they’re doing other tasks. While DiMeo is concerned that it’s harder to get audiences to choose to listen rather than choose to watch or read, I’m seeing evidence that audio is most powerful when choice is not involved.
If you’re working with your hands or driving, there’s a high switching cost involved with being selective about radio or podcast programming – I have to be really uninterested in an NPR story to start searching around the airwaves for an alternative when I’m driving. As a result, I listen to far more stories on subjects I have no explicit interest in on the radio, and often, I discover that I’m interested in a topic I previously knew nothing about.
Radio is a serendipity engine precisely because it downplays choice. Had I turned off Morning Edition when I got bored with a story about the US auto industry, I never would have heard the story about the Ukranian protests that I hadn’t known I was interested in. Viral videos work because I choose to watch and choose to forward – radio works because I don’t choose, and because I’m rewarded for my lack of choice.
When I wrote about serendipity in Rewire, my friend David Weinberger wondered whether serendipity was simply a function of good writing: you end up reading lots of articles on topics you’re not explicitly interested in when you read The New Yorker or Granta. You’ve made the choice of the publication, but not of the content, and you’re along for the ride based on the quality of the writing. I think podcasts are like that – I frequently have no interest in the topics Roman Mars explores on 99% Invisible, but I value his storytelling, and I’m along for the ride.
I don’t think Nate DiMeo wants to be viral – I think he wants to be heard. There’s a need for media that creates serendipity, even if that need isn’t well understood and is far from well met by the market. Alcorn is right that we need to consider the environment for sharing audio, but I think we’d benefit from examining the ways people share long-form readings, a closer analogy to podcasts in the great battle for attention. Audio content would benefit greatly from Instapaper’s “read later” functionality, and from a Longreads that compiled great stories from live radio and podcasts for those who’ve got time to explore.
We need to find better ways of supporting long form media, media that encourages serendipity, media that asks that you give up some choice in exchange for unexpected discovery. We need ways for producers like DiMeo to find audiences who can support their work. But I would hate to see audio producers give up what they do well in search of virality. At its best, audio has a way of blindsiding you, of helping you discover that you are deeply invested in a story you thought you were only half listening to, of changing your life in a small, subtle way by introducing a stray and unexpected thought.
I read Alcorn’s piece in a burger joint in Portsmouth, New Hampshire last night, on Instapaper, on my phone. Walking back to the hotel, I decided to catch up on Nate DiMeo’s work on The Memory Palace and turned to an old episode on my phone, “Heard Once”. I’d heard it once before, but again, walking by the water with the wind whipping my scarf around, I was blindsided again. It’s a story about Jenny Lind, a musician I have never given more than a moment’s thought to, but the story is about so much more.
It’s eight minutes. It may never go viral, but it’s one of the best things I’ve ever heard. Please listen and see if it changes your life in a small way.
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.