Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003
Currently Browsing: xenophilia

Who let all those Ghanaians on the Internet? Jenna Burrell on internet exclusion

Jenna Burrell, assistant professor at the School of Information at UC Berkeley, is speaking today at the Berkman Center on her research on internet usage in Ghana, the subject of her (excellent) book Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana. Burrell is an ethnographer and sociologist, and her examination of Ghanaian internet cafes is one of the best portraits of contemporary internet use in the developing world.

Jenna doing fieldwork in Ghana

Her talk today covers some of the work she began in 2004 and published last year, but expands in some new directions, including questions about network security and preserving access in the margins of the Global Internet. Burrell’s understanding of Ghana has been built up through six years of fieldwork, both on how non-elite Ghanaians use the internet, and on how Ghana’s internet has literally been built, from recycled and repurposed computer equipment. She notes that ethnographers are famous for their microfocus. When she published her book, a Facebook friend joked, “How odd, I just finished my book on youth in the internet cafes of suburban Ghana!” Burrell is now interested in some of the broader questions we might examine raised by specific cases like the dynamics of Ghana’s cybercafes.

Burrell notes that early conversations about the internet often featured the idea that in online spaces, we transcend our physical limits and are able to talk to people anywhere in the world. Our race and gender might become irrelevant or invisible. She suggests that just at the point where real cross-cultural connection was starting to unfold online, discourse about a borderless internet became unfashionable. We might benefit from returning to some of these ideas of borderlessness and encounter in places where these encounters are really taking place.

Ghana’s internet cafes are an excellent space to explore how this connect works in practice, as much of what takes place in these cafes is centered on international connect. Ghana’s “non-elite” net youth culture – i.e., the young people accessing the internet via cybercafes, not the digerati who are accessing the net through computers in their homes – centers around the idea of the “pen pal”, an analog concept adapted for a digital age. Many Ghanaian students have interacted with pen pals via paper letters, and their encounters in online space often focused on finding a digital pen pal. Most participating in this culture were English-literate, had at least a high school education and had probably stopped going to school when they ran out of funds. They sought out pen pals for a variety of reasons: as friends, as potential romantic partners, as patrons or sponsors, business partners, or as philanthropists who might fund their future education or emigration.

Much of Burrell’s work has focused on talking to cybercafe users about their stories and motivations. Understanding the gaps between their understandings of the people they are talking with on Yahoo chat or other tools helps illuminate the challenge of cultural encounter. One group of cybercafe youth were collectors. They had applied for British Airways Executive Club membership – the airline’s frequent flyer program – and called themselves “The Executive Club”, reveling in the membership cards the airline had sent. They collected religious CDs and bibles from the people they encountered online. Another Ghanaian participant in Christian chat rooms on Yahoo! complained that his conversation partners didn’t understand his needs and motivations – he was looking for contacts and potential business partners and figured that Christians would be trustworthy people to work with, but was frustrated that they only wanted to talk about the bible. A third person she observed explained, “I take pen pals just for the exchange of items and actually I don’t take my size. I take sugar mommies and sugar daddies…” In other words, he was looking specifically for conversations that led to people giving gifts.

This sounds like a path from conversation into internet scamming, but Burrell warns us not to jump to conclusions. Gift-giving is very common in Ghanaian culture, and while gifts are small, they are important and usually reciprocal. Some of her Ghanaian informants couldn’t understand why asking for a gift chased their conversation partners away. Fauzia, who had been chatting with a man on Yahoo! asked him to send her a mobile phone. Not only did he stop taking to her, he performed a complicated “dance of avoidance”, logging off when he saw her log on. Another informant, Kwaku, was talking with a Polish woman about seeking a travel visa and couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t let him stay in her home in Poland. Again, the cultural discontinuity is important – if you traveled to see a friend in their village, you would expect that they would share their home with you and provide a place for you to sleep.

Burrell suggests that there are basic misunderstandings between Ghanaian and North American/European culture around gender and communication norms, the moral economy of gifting and notions of obligation and hospitality. In addition, these cultural discontinuities are complicated by material asymmetries, simplistic perceptions of western wealth and African poverty, and the fact that Ghanaians are often paying for net connectivity by the minute, leading to rushed and high pressure encounters.

When cross-cultural encounters go badly, people seek to block further contact. Networks like Facebook make it very easy to block an individual from contacting you. But Burrell sees the internet moving from simple blocking and banning to “encoded exclusion”, the automatic exclusion of entire countries from being able to access certain servers and services. Dating websites, in particular, have taken to blocking and banning Ghanaians and Nigerians entirely, because they use the websites in ways that the site’s creators hadn’t expected or intended.

Working from Ghana for almost a decade, Burrell has found that it’s often difficult to engage in basic online tasks from that country because sites and services exclude based on geolocation. Based on her experiences and that of her informants, she posits two types of exclusion: failure to include, and purposeful exclusion.

Ecommerce is a space where failure to include is pretty common. Ecommerce is a credit-card based world. Many African economies, including Ghana’s, are largely cash based. Even for Ghanaians who have the money to buy online services, there’s often no easy way to make an online payment. This becomes a rationalization for credit card fraud. Ghanaians who want to participate on, which has a modest member fee, rationalize using a stolen credit card as a way of gaining access to a space that’s otherwise closed. There’s also an unfair stigma attached to cash-based transactions, she posits. Some media coverage of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian underwear bomber, focused on the fact that he’d purchased his air ticket in Ghana, paying cash. US authorities suggested that paying cash was evidence of bad intent and some suggested waiting periods and extra scrutiny for cash payments – Burrell suggests that that’s simply how Ghana’s economy works at present, and that using cash payments as a signal for possible terrorist behavior is a form of failure to include.

Purposeful exclusion also comes into play in ecommerce. Burrell discovered that trying to purchase a product on Amazon from Ghana triggered a set of “forced detours” that made purchasing impossible. Once Amazon detected her login from Ghana, the site immediately reset her password and began sending her phishing warnings. Paypal uses similar techniques – when she tried to sign up for a sewing class in Oakland (to make something out of the beautiful batik she was buying in Ghana), PayPal told her that they didn’t serve customers in Ghana or Nigeria, and started a set of security checks that led to phone verification to her US phone, which didn’t work in Ghana. These extended loops of checks are a huge frustration to the Ghanaians who have the means and tools to participate in these economies. As Ghanaian-born blogger Koranteng noted in an excellent blog post, “If we take ecommerce as one component of modern global citizenship then we are illegal aliens of sorts, and our participation is marginal at best.”

Other blocks are more explicit., a popular, no-fee dating site, briefly ran a warning that stated that they block traffic from Africa, Romania, Turkey, India, Russia “like every other major site”. The warning was removed, but the site is still inaccessible from Ghana.

Search for “IP block Ghana” or “IP block Nigeria” and you’ll find posts on webmaster fora asking for advice on how to exclude whole nations from the internet. She offers three examples:

From Webmaster World: “I am so fed up with these darn African fraudsters, is it possible to block african traffic by IP”
From a Unix security discussion group: “Maybe we could just disconnect those countries from the Internet until they get their scam artists under control”
From a Linux admin tips site: “I admin an [ecommerce] website and a lot of bogus traffic comes from countries that do not offer much in commercial value.”

Legitimate frustration over fraud leads to overbroad attempts to crack down on this fraud. Burrell’s research involved working with a British woman who lost $100,000 to scams in Ghana – the woman came to Ghana to seek justice and Burrell attended court hearings with her. She suggests that while there’s likely corruption within the Ghana police service, the judges and lawyers she met were genuinely worried about scamming and looking for ways to crack down on the activity. But the perception remains that Ghana isn’t doing enough to protect the rest of the world from its least ethical internet users. This, in turn, has consequences for Ghana’s many legitimate users.

She leaves the group with a series of questions:
– How do we consider inclusiveness as one of the principals to strive for in network security best practices?
– How do we investigate and make visible the consequences of network security practices at the margins of the internet?
– When is country-level IP address blocking appropriate?

These questions lead to a lively discussion around the Berkman table. Oliver Goodenough wonders whether the practices Burrell is describing parallel redlining, the illegal practice of denying certain services or overcharging for them in neighborhoods with high concentrations of citizens of color. But another participant wonders whether we’re being unfair and suggests that using concepts like “censorship” to discuss online exclusion is unfairly characterizing what might simply be wise business practice. “Should a company be compelled to do business in a country where there’s no legal infrastructure to adequately protect it?” Jerome Hergueux argues that global trade follows trust, and that the desire to exclude these countries may be seen as a vote that there’s no trust in how they do business. Burrell notes that there are patterns of media coverage that contribute to why we don’t trust Ghanaians, and that those perceptions might not be accurate.

I’m deeply interested in the topics Burrell brings up in this talk. I’ve experienced the purposeful exclusion Burrell talks about, both in trying to do business from west Africa, and in my travels back and forth – I routinely bring goods to Ghana and Nigeria that friends in those countries have ordered and sent to my office, because they can’t get them delivered to their homes. It’s very strange when people you’ve met only over Twitter send you iPads so you can bring them to Nigeria… but it is, as Hergeuex points out, an interesting commentary on who we trust and who we don’t.

I worry about another form of exclusion that’s mostly theoretical at this point, but possible: what if spaces that are acting as digital public spheres become closed to developing world users? That’s an idea put forward in a New York Times article by Brad Stone and Miguel Helft. Examining Facebook’s efforts to build sites “optimized” for the developing world, they wonder whether companies, desperate to become profitable, will stop serving, or badly underserve, users in countries where there’s little online advertising, like Nigeria and Ghana.

Talking with Burrell after her talk, I wondered whether there’s a hierarchy of needs at work: should we worry more about Facebook banning Nigerian users (no evidence that they will, to be clear) more than Amazon or OkCupid? Are we willing to argue for a global right to online speech, but no global right to online dating? Burrell argued that accessing OkCupid might be more significant in terms of life transformation for a Ghanaian user than accessing Facebook and suggested that any sort of tiering of access was challenging to think through.

It’s interesting to consider: the Internet Freedom agenda advocated by the US State Department focuses on countries that would block access to the internet to prevent certain types of political speech. But what if the real threat to global internet freedom starts with US companies that don’t see a profit in letting Ghanaian or Nigerian users onto their sites? Anyone want to bet on whether a Kerry State Department will be willing to tell US companies to stop excluding African users?

When the world is your dance teacher

In 2005, Matt Harding posted a video on the internet. It’s a compilation of clips of him dancing – badly – in locations around the world. It was his video postcard of an extended walkabout, a vacation that began in 2003 when he quit his job and started following his Aussie friends on their global peregrinations. It was colorful, charming and became very popular very quickly.

A second video followed in 2006 and it was, in the best possible way, more of the same. In beautiful and remote parts of the globe, Matt dances like an idiot, occasionally watched by bewildered onlookers. The first two share the same musical DNA – the first is set to Deep Forest’s “Sweet Lullaby”, and the second to a remixed track built around “Rorogwela”, the Solomons Island lullaby Deep Forest (illegally) sampled for their hit track. The 2006 video was even more popular and landed Matt a sponsorship from Stride Gum, which allowed him to continue his global travels.

Something very interesting happened to Harding between his video in 2006 and his subsequent one in 2008. We see the change about 50 seconds into his third video. It begins as the others have, with Matt dancing alone in front of scenery that is beautiful, stark or strange. And then the frame fills mobs of people who join him, also dancing like idiots. Matt goes from dancing around the world from dancing with the world.

Where the Hell is Matt, 2008

I’ve met Matt a few times, but I don’t know him well enough to make a broad, sweeping statement about his evolution as a human being. Still, I’m going to argue that sometime between 2006 and 2008, he grew up. In the 2005 and 2006 videos, he’s travelling around the world to places he’d always wanted to see, asking his traveling companions or bystanders to hold the camera. For the 2008 video, he’s travelling with Melissa Nixon, his girlfriend (now partner/wife/coparent), and they’re very consciously making a viral video. Reading Matt’s book about the experience, he and Melissa argued about the significance and ethics of the project throughout, making the decision to start inviting people from the background into the frame, and finding ways to appropriately thank people for being part of the video.

One of the ways Matt took on responsibility in the 2008 video is in how he constructed the soundtrack. The first two videos used an unlicensed – and very controversial – piece of music as their background. For the 2008 video, he commissioned an original piece of music, “Praan”, using the text from Rabindranath Tagore’s The Stream of Life. More impressively to me, he took on the controversy over Deep Forest’s use of a Solomon Islands lullaby and took on a set of trips and investigations to find the descendents of Afunakwa, the woman who sang the original song. I’ve written about Harding’s quest here, providing some context for his search for Afunakwa’s family, and I was deeply thrilled to see his post last year that he’d located Afunakwa’s descendents and set up a fund that will make it possible for them to go to school, thanks to Matt’s largesse.

I heard Matt speak at TED in 2009, and it was clear that something still wasn’t quite working for him with the dancing videos. Performing a goofy dance in front of people who’ve got rich and sophisticated dance traditions is a bit like backpacking around the world while eating only McDonalds. At TED, Matt told us that his next video would feature dances from around the world, and he proceeded to try and teach us the short snippet of Indian dance that graces the third video. It didn’t work very well – the TED crowd was insufficiently graceful or silly to pull the moment off – and I found myself wondering whether Matt’s effort to turn a silly project into a genuine attempt at connection would fall short.

It didn’t. Matt’s fourth video was released today, and it’s beautiful.

It starts with Matt taking dancing lessons: in the streets of Kigali and Seville, in a ballet studio in Syria and a gym in Pennsylvania, in a marble hall in Pyongyang. As the music builds, Matt is dancing, with professionals and amateurs, performing gestures that are a mix of local traditions and global styles. The crowds get larger, and dozens, sometimes hundreds of dancers reach out from one side of the frame from one corner of the world, to a group of dancers, apparently responding, in another corner. It’s a little like Kultiman’s beautiful THRU YOU, but this time the participants know they’re part of the larger whole, here to dance with Matt and to dance with the rest of the world.

Matt’s first two videos made me smile – his next two have made me smile and made me weep. The moments that get me are small ones, like the cut, in his 2008 video, between dancing with a happy group in Israel and a small group of children in Palestine. This time, he dances with four beautiful women in a Damascus ballet studio. Their faces are blurred out, for their safety, a gesture that’s both practical and deeply poetic. Matt dances with a regally poised woman in Pyongyang, surrounded by a crowd of men in sharp suits and women in elegant gowns. The video doesn’t engage in the awkward, empty shots of North Korea that portray the nation as a vast Potemkin village – it takes the radical step of showing North Koreans as fellow humans, smiling and laughing at Matt’s awkward pass de deux.

He still dances badly, but now Matt’s got the world as a dance teacher.

I used Matt’s story as a way to close a talk I gave at ROFLCon in 2010, urging the audience to find ways to use the internet to connect with other corners of the world, not simply to laugh at them. There’s nothing inherent in the internet that guarantees that we will use it to connect with people from other languages, cultures and nations. But there’s no doubt the internet makes it easier to connect for those who choose to do so. Matt and Melissa’s latest work is tribute to the power of the internet to widen, not narrow, our world if we’re willing to jump into the frame and dance.

A quick postscript: I know there are valid critiques of Matt’s project, based on the carbon footprint impact of flying around the world to dance with people; about the economic, class and racial privilege that let him make a fool out of himself in the first videos, and allows him to amplify other people’s cultures in this video. And you could certainly point out that Matt’s art is now his business, and that corporate sponsors have made it possible for this video to take place. My guess is that Matt would own up to much of that criticism. But I should also point out that he’s using the video as a fundraiser for seven of the organizations who helped him dance, in Afghanistan, Rwanda, Iraq, Haiti, Thailand, Syria, and with a truly special dance company in Oakland, California. If you found the videos moving, please consider supporting those organizations.

CHI keynote: Desperately Seeking Serendipity

I’m giving the closing keynote at CHI 2011 this afternoon. I’m thrilled to have the chance to share some thoughts with some of the smartest researchers and practitioners working on questions of human/computer interaction, and perhaps to poke some to help me think about a topic I’m increasingly obsessed with: creating structures, online and offline, to increase the chances of serendipity. I’m particularly honored to share the stage, virtually, with Howard Rheingold, who gave the opening keynote earlier this week, focused on his key work in digital learning and teaching.

I know from past experience that there’s no way I can say everything about a topic in a 40 minute keynote, even talking like a New Yorker on speed. This blog post serves as an “extended dance mix” of my talk, including some digressions I probably can’t make on stage and references to the research and ideas I’m referencing throughout the talk. If you’d like visual accompaniment, my slides from the talk are posted at SlideShare… but this post provides a narrative that they probably lack.

As of 2008, the majority of the world’s population lives in cities. In highly developed countries (the membership of the OECD), the figure is 77%, while in the least developed countries (as classified by the UN), 29% of people live in cities. It’s an oversimplification, but one way to think about economic development is a shift from a rural population, supported by subsistence agriculture, to an urban population engaged in manufacturing and service industries, fed by a small percentage of the population that remains focused on farming.

This graph from the World Bank may even understate the apparent inexorability of the rural/urban shift. In 1800, 3% of the world’s population lived in cities, many in European cities like London and Amsterdam. Even so, those societies had rural majorities – roughly 80% in England, 75% in the Netherlands. A century later, 14% had moved to cities. And since 1950, we’ve seen a rise in urban populations at a much faster rate than rural populations, and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs World Urbanization Prospects report predicts that we’re about to see this continued growth complemented by a decline in rural populations.

It may not sound intuitively obvious to people living in the developed world, but a city like Lagos – with a population of 8 million, over 4% growth a year, living in a dense, crowded, traffic-choken sprawl – is an extremely appealing destination for Nigerians living in rural areas. In a developing world city, the schools and hospitals tend to be far better than what’s available in rural areas. Even with high rates of unemployment, the economic opportunities in cities vastly outpace what’s available in rural areas. But there’s a more basic reason – cities are exciting. They offer options: where to go, what to do, what to see. It’s easy to dismiss this idea – that people would move to cities to avoid rural boredom – as trivial. It’s not. As Amartya Sen argued in his seminal book, “Development as Freedom“, people don’t just want to be less poor, they want more opportunities, more freedoms. Cities promise options and opportunities, and they often deliver.

What’s harder to understand, for me, at least, is why anyone would have moved to London in the years from 1500 – 1800, the years in which it experienced rapid, continuous growth and became the greatest metropolis of the 19th century. First, the city had an unfortunate tendency to burn down. The Great Fire of 1666, which left as many as 200,000 in the city homeless, was merely the largest of a series of “named fires” severe enough to distinguish themselves from the routine, everyday fires that imperiled wood and thatch houses, packed closely together and heated with open coal or wood fires. It’s likely that more Londoners would have been affected but for the fact that 100,000 – a fifth of the city’s population – had died the previous year from an outbreak of the bubonic plague, which spread quickly through the rat-infested city. (It didn’t help that mayor of London had ordered all cats and dogs killed for fear they were spreading the plague – instead, they were likely keeping the plague rats in check.)

By the time of Dickens’s London, the threat was less from fires than from the water system. Open sewers filled with household waste, as well as the manure of the thousands of horses used to pull buses and cabs, emptied directly into the Thames, which was the source of most of the city’s drinking water. We remember a particularly severe cholera epidemic in 1854 because it led to John Snow’s investigation of the Broad Street pump and the eventual vindication of the germ theory of disease. But cholera was common from the 1840s through the 1860s, due to a combination of open sewers and cesspits dug behind private residences, which often overflowed as London residents upgraded from chamber pots to the more modern flush toilet, which greatly increased the volume of human waste that needed disposal. The smell of London during the hot summer of 1858 was so bad that it led to a series of Parliamentary investigations – “The Great Stink”, as historians know the event, finally led to the construction of London’s sewer system in the 1860s.

People flocked to cities in the 18th and 19th centuries, but not for their health. In the 1850s, the life expectancy for a man born in Liverpool was 26 years, as compared to 57 years for a man in a rural market town. But cities like London had a pull not unlike that of Lagos now. There were more economic opportunities in cities, especially for the landless poor, and an array of jobs made possible from the international trade that flowed through the ports. For some, the increased intellectual opportunities provided by universities and coffee houses was an attraction, while for others, the opportunity to court and marry outside of closed rural communities was the reason to relocate. Amsterdam built itself to prominence in the 1600s in part by allowing French Huguenots, Spanish and Portuguese Jews and Dutch Catholics to worship relatively freely – such religious tolerance would have been much harder to find in rural areas.

To a large extent, the reason to come to the city was to encounter the people you couldn’t encounter in your rural, disconnected lifestyle: to trade with, to marry, to learn from, to worship with. You came to the city to become a cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world.

“Diogenes, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1860

The term “cosmopolitan” comes from the Greek words for world (Cosmos – Κόσμος) and for city (Polis – Πόλις). It was coined by the Cynic philosopher Diogenes, who’d fled his native Sinope (possibly one step ahead of the authorities, as some accounts have him leaving home to escape charges of counterfeiting) for Athens, where he lived in a barrel in the agora, picked fights with prominent philosophers, and did his level best to violate every conceivable societal norm. (The dogs in the portrait above are a reference to his nickname, Diogenes the dog. Like his namesakes, historians reason, Diogenes ate, slept, bathed, urinated and defecated in public.) It’s probably worth reading his declaration that he was not a citizen of Athens or of Sinope, but of the world, as much as social transgression than as a lived identity.

Philosopher Kwame Appiah points out that living as a cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world, has really only been possible in the past few hundred years. If you were one of the 97% of people living in rural areas in 1800, it’s likely you would have had little or no contact with people who didn’t share your language, culture or belief system. One of the reasons we have such difficulty living in a genuinely cosmopolitan way, Appiah suspects, is that we have vastly more experience as a species with parochialism than with cosmopolitanism.

If you wanted to encounter a set of ideas that were radically different than your own – say those of a confrontational homeless guy who sleeps in a tub – your best bet in an era before telecommunications was to move to a city. Cities are technologies for trade, for learning, for worship, but they’re also a powerful communication technologies. Cities enables realtime communication between different individuals and groups and the rapid diffusion of new ideas and practices to multiple communities. Even in an age of instantaneous digital communications, cities retain their function as a communications technology that enables constant contact with the unfamiliar, strange and different.

To the extent that a city is a communications technology, it may not be a surprise that early literally portrayals of the internet seized on the city as a metaphor. Early cyberpunk authors, like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, were fascinated by the ways in which the internet could bring the weird, dangerous and unexpected (as well as the trivial, mundane and safe) into a constant fight for your attention. Both seized on cities as a way the future internet would present itself to participants, which is slightly odd, given that Gibson was utterly naïve about computing technologies, writing Neuromancer on a typewriter, while Stephenson was a seasoned programmer, developing Macintosh software in the hopes of rendering Snow Crash as an animated film. And, after all, there’s no reason data can’t be presented as a forest of trees or a sea of bits.

But both Gibson and Stephenson were interested in virtual spaces as ones in which people were forced to interact because lots of people wanted to be in the same spaces at the same time, bumping into each other as they headed towards the same destinations. On the one hand, it’s an insane way to visualize data – why would we force people into close contact when we’re building “spaces” that can be infinite in scale? Both believed that we’d want to interact in cyberspace in some of the ways we do in cities, experiencing an overload of sensation, a compression in scale, a challenge of picking out signal and noise from information competing for our attention.

We hope that cities are serendipity engines. By putting a diverse set of people and things together in a confined place, we increase the chances that we’re going to stumble onto the unexpected. It’s worth asking the question: do cities actually work this way?

In 1952, French sociologist Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe asked a young political science student to keep a journal of her daily movements as part of his city study “Paris et l’agglomération parisienne”. He mapped her paths onto a map of Paris and saw the emergence of a triangle, with vertices at her apartment, her university and the home of her piano teacher. Her movements illustrate, “the narrowness of the real Paris in which each individual lives.”

That pattern of home, work and hobby – whether it’s a comparatively solitary activity like piano studies or the “great good place” of public socialization celebrated by Ray Oldenburg – is a familiar one to social scientists. Most of us are fairly predictable. Nathan Eagle, who has worked with Sandy Pentland at MIT’s Media Lab on the idea of “reality mining”, digesting huge sets of data like mobile phone records, estimates that he can predict the location of “low-entropy individuals” with 90-95% accuracy based on this type of data. (Those of us with less predictable schedules and movements might be only 60% predictable.)

We might choose to see our predictability as evidence of contentment and lives well lived. Or we can react as situationist cultural critic Guy Debord did and decry the “outrage at the fact that anyone’s life can be so pathetically limited.” One way or another, the likelihood we will be confronted with one of these maps is increasing.

Zach Seward, outreach editor for the Wall Street Journal, is a heavy Foursquare user. As he checks in at venues in and around New York City, he generates a “heat map” of his wanderings. It’s easy to see a heavy concentration around Manhattanville, where he lives, and midtown, where he works. With a bit more work, we can see that he enjoys hanging out in the East Village, rarely strays into the “outer boroughs” except to fly from LaGuardia and to watch baseball games – the one venue he’s checked into in the Bronx is Yankee Stadium.

If you’re using Foursquare, you’re broadcasting the data that can be used to make a map like this one. Yiannis Kakavas has developed a software package called “Creepy” designed to allow users – or people watching users – to build maps like this one from information posted on Twitter, Flickr and other geolocated services. Creepier, perhaps, is the discovering that you’re leaking this data simply by using a mobile phone. German Green Party politician Malte Spitz sued his phone company, Deutsche Telecom, to gain access to whatever data they’d retained on his phone usage. He ultimately obtained an Excel file with over 35,000 lines of data, each recording his location and activities. Working with German newspaper Die Zeit, he turned the data into a map of his movements over six months and published it online. While you may not be interested in suing your mobile phone provider, it’s likely they have similar data on your movements, which could be released to law enforcement on request… or perhaps used to build a behavioral profile to target ads to you.

Seward took a close look at his Foursquare check ins and discovered they provide a piece of profile information he hadn’t realized he was providing: his race. He overlaid his check-ins in Harlem over a map that showed the racial composition of each block and discovered that “his” Harlem is almost exclusively blocks that are majority-white. As he observes, “Census data can describe the segregation of my block, but how about telling me how segregated my life is? Location data points in that direction.”

It’s worth pointing out that Seward is neither a racist, nor is he “pathetically limited”, as Debord suggests. We all filter the places we live into the places where we’re regulars and the ones we avoid, the parts of town where we feel familiar and where we feel foreign. We do this based on where we live, where we work, and who we like to spend time with. If we had enough data from enough New Yorkers, we could build maps of Dominican New York, Pakistani New York, Chinese New York, as well as black and white New Yorks.

The patterns we trace throughout our cities tend to reflect a basic sociological truth: birds of a feather flock together. Lazarsfeld and Merton saw the effects of homophily in patterns of friendship in Hilltown, Pennsylvania and Craftown, NJ, where neighbors were more likely to establish close friendships if they shared common demographic (racial, religious, economic) characteristics, and a wealth of sociological research has confirmed the effects of homophily in social networks.

When we talk about cities, we recognize that they’re not always the cosmopolitan melting pots we dream they are. We acknowledge the ethnic character of neighborhoods, and we’re conscious of ghettos that get separated, through a combination of physical structure and cumulative behavior, from the rest of the city. (Bill Rankin’s Chicago Boundaries map, which shows racial self-identification atop a map of Chicago makes these structures uncomfortably apparent.) We hope for random encounter with a diverse citizenry to build a web of weak ties that increases our sense of involvement in the community, as Bob Putnam suggested in Bowling Alone. And we worry that we may instead isolate and cocoon ourselves when faced with a situation where we feel like outsiders, as Putnam’s recent research suggests.

I’m less interested in the ways in which we limit our paths through cities than in how we constrain what we do and don’t encounter online. As with cities, where urban planning and design interact with individual behavior, I don’t want to make the case that our constraints are solely by choice. But through the design of the systems we use and our behavior with those systems, I see reasons to worry that our use of the internet may be less cosmopolitan and more isolated that we would hope.

In 1993, MIT Media Lab researcher Pascal Chesnais designed a piece of software called Freshman Fishwrap. Using a range of online news sources available at the time, Fishwrap allowed individuals to produce a customized digital newspaper, including mentions of their hometown or favorite sports team and filtering out less interesting news. Nicholas Negroponte celebrated the project in his book “Being Digital”, pointing to it as part of the personalized future possible in a digital age.

Legal scholar Cass Sunstein saw the Daily Me as a threat, rather than a promise. In his book, he articulated a fear of internet echo chambers, where individuals could encounter only views they agreed with. In such an environment, Sunstein worried, we would see increased political polarization and a shift of moderate views to the extremes.

Much of the scholarly response to Sunstein’s critique has focused on not on countering the argument that isolation leads to polarization, but on demonstrating that the internet is not as polarizing as he thinks. Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro studied the online reading habits of thousands of US internet users and concluded that while some internet sites have a great deal of partisan separation, the news sites most visited by internet users (Yahoo! News, CNN, AOL News, MSNBC) were visited both by left and right-leaning users. They conclude that the internet may be more polarized – in terms of who reads what content – than most forms of broadcast media, but suggest the polarization is less than we fear, and less than we likely experience in our physical communities.

I’m less concerned about left-right polarization in the US, and more concerned about us/them polarization around the world. Above is a visualization of the data Gentzkow and Shapiro collected, put together by the team at Slate to show the polarization of small sources versus the broad appeal of the larger sites. I’ve annotated it with a couple of labels, and with yellow boxes, which show which news sources are non-US. You’ll note that there’s not a lot of yellow in the image – the largest international news source, in terms of page views, is the BBC, which is probably the most visited “pure news” site on the entire Web. (You may also note that it’s got a much larger share of liberal than conservative readers – 22% conservative versus 78% liberal.)

It’s not that Americans are particularly bad about favoring local news sources over international news. I analyzed the media preferences of 33 nations using data from Doubleclick Ad Planner and discovered that the US preference for domestic news sources (roughly 93% to 7% when I ran the analysis in May 2010) is actually pretty low in comparison to the 9 other nations with the most internet users. Countries that have more than 40 million or more internet users generally have a very strong bias towards local sources – the mean is roughly 95%/5%, which makes Americans look (slightly) cosmopolitan in comparison.

This data set doesn’t tell us about our appetite for international news so much as it comments on our preference for content pitched to ourselves and our countrymen. It’s possible that we’re getting tons of international news from Yahoo or CNN, though there’s good reasons to think otherwise. (Media Standards Trust in the UK saw a sharp drop in the percent of UK newspapers focused on international stories over the past 30 years, and research conducted by Alisa Miller of Public Radio International suggests that US broadcast media focuses much more on entertainment stories than on international news.) What’s striking to me about this preference data is that there’s so little effort required to access international news sources like BBC, the Times of India or the Mail and Guardian – they’re one click away and don’t require crossing a language barrier – and how strong the “local” bias for national news sources appears to be.

Here’s the danger of this sort of isolation – we miss important stories. Through my work on Global Voices, I’m blessed with a set of close friends from around the world, and I often catch glimpses of important breaking stories, either through the work we do on the site, of from my friends’ preoccupations on their social media feeds. In late December 2010, it became clear that something very unusual was happening in Tunisia – friends like Sami Ben Gharbia were both covering the protests unfolding in Sidi Bouzid and spreading across the country, and asking loudly why no media outside the region was covering the revolution underway. I got into the act with one of my better-timed blogposts – on January 12th, I published “What if Tunisia had a revolution, but nobody watched?“… and I got a lot of phone calls when Ben Ali fled the country two days later.

The revolution in Tunisia caught intelligence and diplomatic services around the world flat-footed. It didn’t have to – there was a wealth of information being published on Tunisian Facebook pages, aggregated by groups like and distributed on Al Jazeera (primarily through their Arabic service.) But this shift from a world where news is dominated by superpowers to a multipolar world is a hard one for diplomats, the military, the press and individuals to get used to. And if I’m honest about my view of the world, I’m forced to admit that there’s no way I would have known about the revolution brewing if I didn’t have close Tunisian friends.

Like everyone else, I’m experiencing a shift in how I get news about the world. In the pre-web world and early web days, news of the world came primarily through curated media – broadcast television, newspapers, magazines. There were – and are – reasons to distrust curators, but there’s a critical aspect of their work I believe we need to preserve as we move towards new models for organizing news. Curators implicitly tell us what they believe we need to know about the world. High quality curators often have a broader view of the world than individuals have, and well-curated media often demands we pay attention to people, places and issues we might have otherwise ignored.

On the other hand, curators invariably have biases, and the ability to seek information that appeals to our own interests and preferences is one of the most powerful capacities the modern web has put in our hands. Search lets me learn a great deal about things I care about – sumo, African politics, Vietnamese cooking – but it’s quite possible that I miss topics that I needed to know about because I was paying more attention to my interests and less to curators. We need mechanisms to ensure that search gets complemented with serendipity.

There’s a trend in the design of web tools that seeks to guide us to novel content by examining what our friends care about. Community-based tools like Reddit, Digg and Slashdot have formed communities around shared interests and direct us to stories the community agreed (through voting and karma mechanisms) is interesting and worth sharing. Twitter, and especially Facebook, work on a much more personal level. They show us what our friends know and believe is important. Or as Brad DeLong puts it, Facebook offers a different answer to the question, “What do I need to know?” – “You need to know what your friends and your friends of friends already know that you do not.”

The problem, of course, is that if your friends don’t know about a revolution in Tunisia or a great new Vietnamese restaurant, you may not know either. Knowing what your friends know is important. But unless you’ve got a remarkably diverse and well-informed set of friends, there’s a decent chance that their collective intelligence has some blind spots. Guardian columnist Paul Carr tells a funny story about returning to a San Francisco hotel room and being baffled that it, and the rest of the hotel, hadn’t been cleaned that day. The hotel workers were protesting the Arizona immigration bill, SB1070, and while there was extensive conversation about the protests and the legislation on Twitter, they weren’t taking place on feeds Carr followed on Twitter. By missing the protests (until they manifested as an unmade bed in his room), Carr realized that he was living in “my own little Twitter bubble of People Like Me: racially, politically, linguistically and socially.” It’s worth asking whether that bubble is able to provide us with the serendipity we hope for from the web.

A brief look at the word “serendipity”: Robert K. Merton devoted a book, written with collaborator Elinor Barber and published posthumously, to the topic. This may seem an odd exploration for a celebrated sociologist, but it’s worth remembering that one of his many contributions to the field was an examination of “unintended consequences”. Serendipity, at first glance, looks like the positive side of unintended consequences, the happy accident. But that’s not what the term meant, at least originally. The word was coined by Horace Walpole, an 18th century British aristocrat, 4th Earl of Oxford, novelist, architect and gossip. He’s remembered primarily for his letters, 48 volumes worth, which offer a perspective on what the world looked like through an aristocrat’s eyes.

In a letter written in 1754, Walpole tells his correspondent, Horace Mann, about a unexpected and helpful discovery he made, due to his deep knowledge of heraldry. To explain the experience, he refers to a Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip, in which the titular characters were “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” Walpole’s neologism is a pat on the back – he’s congratulating himself both for a clever discovery and for his sagacity, which permitted the discovery.

Useful as the concept is, the word “serendipity” didn’t come into wide use until the past couple of decades. By 1958, Merton tells us, it had appeared in print only 135 times. In the next four decades, it appeared in book titles 57 times, and graced newspapers 13,000 times in the 1990s alone. A Google search turns up 11 million pages with the term, including restaurants, movies and gift shops named “serendipity”, but very few on unexpected discovery through sagacity.

Merton was one of the major promoters of the word, writing about “the serendipity pattern” in 1946 as a way of understanding unexpected scientific discoveries. Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928 was triggered by a spore of Penicillium fungus that contaminated a petri dish where he was growing Staphylococcus bacteria. While the mold spore landing in the dish was an accident, the discovery was serendipity – had Fleming not been cultivating bacteria, he wouldn’t have noticed a stray mold spore. And had Fleming not had a deep understanding of bacterial development – sagacity – it’s unlikely he would have noticed the antibiotic properties of Penicillium and developed the most important advance in health technology of the first half of the 20th century.

Louis Pasteur observed, “In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind.” Merton believed that serendipity emerged both from a prepared mind and from circumstances and structures conducive to discovery. In “The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity”, he and Barber explore discovery in a General Electric laboratory under the leadership of Willis Whitney, who encouraged a work environment that focused as much on fun as it did on discovery. A healthy blend of anarchy and structure was necessary for discovery, and over-planning was anathema as “the policy of leaving nothing to chance is inherently doomed by failure.” (Riccardo Campa’s review of Merton and Barber’s book is very useful for anyone interested in questions of serendipity and structure.)

The idea that serendipity is a product both of an open and prepared mind and of circumstances conducive to discovery can be traced back to the story quoted by Walpole in 1754. The three princes were deeply learned in “Morality, Politicks and all polite Lerning in general”, but they did not make their unexpected discoveries until their father, the Emperor Jafer, sent them out from his kingdom to “travel through all the World, to the end that they might learn the Manners and Customs of every nation.” Once the well-prepared Princes met circumstances conducive to discovery, unexpected and sagacious discoveries occurred. (For more on the 1722 translation of the Three Princes of Serendip, you may be interested in this blog post.)

When we use the word “serendipity” now, it’s usually to mean “a happy accident”. The parts of the definition that focus on sagacity, preparation and structure have slipped, at least in part, into obscurity. Our loss, I believe, is that we’ve lost sight of the idea that we could prepare ourselves for serendipity, both personally and structurally. I suspect that we – and even Merton – understand those preparations poorly. And, as my friend Wendy Seltzer pointed out to me, if we don’t understand the structures of serendipity, it appears no more likely than random chance.

If we want to create online spaces to encourage serendipity, we might start by learning from cities.

In the early 1960s, a fierce public battle erupted over the future of New York City. The proximate cause of the battle was the Lower Manhattan Expressway, a proposed ten-lane elevated highway that would have connected the Holland Tunnel (which links Manhattan and New Jersey under the Hudson River) to the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges (which cross the East River and connect Manhattan to Brooklyn and Queens.) Plans for the highway required the demolition of 14 blocks along Broome Street in Little Italy and Soho, and would have displaced roughly two thousand families and eight hundred businesses.

The proponent of the plan was Robert Moses, the legendarily influential urban planner responsible for much of New York’s park and highway systems. His fiercest opponent was Jane Jacobs, activist, author and chairperson in 1962 of the “Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway”. The lasting legacy of Jacobs’s opposition to Moses is both the survival of Broome Street and her masterwork, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, which is both a critique of “rationalist” urban planning and a manifesto for preserving and designing vibrant urban communities.

Jacobs framed many of her battles over urban planning by asking whether cities were for the benefit of cars or of people, suggesting Moses’s indifference to the people he proposed to displace. A slightly less biased frame might be to observe that Moses took a bird’s-eye, city-wide view of urban planning while Jacobs offered a pedestrian-eye, street level view of the city. From Moses’s point of view, one of the major challenges of a city is allowing people to move rapidly from their homes in the suburbs to business districts in the center of cities, and back out to the “necklace” of parks he’d painstakingly constructed in the outer boroughs.

This principle of separation of uses – residential neighborhoods separate from business districts, separated from recreation areas – was one of the main foci of Jacobs’s critique. What makes cities livable, creative, vital, and ultimately, safe is the street-level random encounter that Jacobs documented in her corner of Greenwich Village. In neighborhoods where blocks are small, pedestrians are welcome and there’s a mixture of residential, commercial and recreational destinations, there’s a vibrancy that’s thoroughly absent from planned residential-only communities or from city centers that empty out when offices close. That vibrancy comes from the ongoing chance encounter between people using a neighborhood for different purposes, encountering one another as their paths intersect and cross.

Jacobs’s vision of a livable city has been a major influence on urban design since the early 1980s, with the rise of “New Urbanism” and the walkable cities movement. These cities – and Vancouver, where we’re having this conference is a prominent example of one – tend to favor public transit over private automobiles, and create spaces that encourage people to interact and mix, in mixed-use neighborhoods and pedestrian-friendly shopping streets. As urban planner David Walters observes, they’re designed to help individuals linger and mix: “Casual encounters in shared spaces are the heart of community life, and if urban spaces are poorly designed, people will hurry through them as quickly as possible.”

If there’s an overarching principle to street-level design, it’s a pattern of designing to minimize isolation. Walkable cities make it harder for you to isolate yourself in your home or your car, and easier to interact in public spaces. In the process, they present residents with a tradeoff – it’s convenient to be able to park your car outside your home, but walkable cities ask you to be suspicious of too much convenience. The neighborhoods Jacobs celebrates are certainly not the most efficient in terms of an individual’s ability to move quickly and independently. Vibrancy and efficiency may not be diametrically opposed, but it’s likely that the forces are in tension.

Cities embody political decisions make by their designers. So do online spaces. But urban planners tend to be more transparent about their agendas. Urban planners will declare an intention to create a walkable city with the logic that they believe increased use of public space will improve civic life. And, in the best of cases, planners test to see what works and report failures when they occur – the persistence of private car use in walking cities, for instance. It’s much harder to get the architects behind Facebook or Foursquare articulate the behaviors they’re trying to enable and the political assumptions that underly those decisions.

I think many people who are designing online spaces are trying to increase exposure to diverse range of information and to cultivate serendipity. But I also worry it’s difficult to accomplish, in part because it’s too easy to start from scratch. An urban planner who wants to make changes to a city’s structure is held in check by a matrix of forces: a desire to preserve history, the needs and interests of businesses and residents in existing communities, the costs associated with executing new projects. Progress is slow, and as a result, we’ve got a rich history of cities we can study to see how earlier citizens, architects and planners have solved these problems.

It’s possible to gain inspirations about the future of Lagos by walking the streets of Boston or Rome. For those planning the future of Facebook, it’s hard to study what’s succeeded and failed for MySpace, in part because an exodus of users to Facebook is gradually turning MySpace into a ghost town. It’s harder yet to study earlier communities, like LamdaMOO or Usenet of the early 1980s. I often find myself nostalgic for Tripod, the proto-social network I helped build in the late 1990s. The admirable Internet Archive includes several dozen snapshots of pages on the site from 1997 – 2000, which gives a sense for the changing look and feel, but doesn’t give much insight into the content created by the 18 million users of the site in 1998. Tripod’s more successful competitor, Geocities, disappeared from the web entirely in 2010 – it’s legacy is less than 23,000 pages stored accessible through the Wayback Machine, which threw up its hands at the impossible task of archiving the vast site in mid-2001.

If we learn from real-world cities instead of abandoned digital ones, what lessons might we take?

The Jacobs/Moses debate suggests we need to be cautious of architectures that offer convenience and charge isolation as a price of admission. This is the concern Eli Pariser articulates in his (excellent) new book, “The Filter Bubble“. He worries that between Google’s personalized search and the algorithmic decisions Facebook makes in displaying news from our friends, our online experience is an increasingly isolated one, which threatens to deprive us from serendipitous encounter. Filter bubbles are comfortable, comforting and convenient – they give us a great deal of control and insulate us from surprise. They’re cars, rather than public transit or busy sidewalks.

With the rise of Facebook’s “like” button on sites across the web, we’re starting to see personalization come into play even on heavily curated sites like the New York Times. I can access whatever stories I want, but I also get signals of which of my friends have “liked” the story I’m reading, and what other stories they’ve liked as well. It’s not hard to imagine a future where “like” informs even more information spaces. In the near future, I expect to be able to pull up an online map of Vancouver and see my friend’s favorite restaurants overlaid on top of it. (I can already, using Dopplr, but I expect to see this functionality creeping into Mapquest, if not Google Maps, at some point soon.)

Whether that scenario is exciting or troubling has a lot to do with whether I see only my friends’ recommendations, and whether I can see the favorites of other communities too. As Eli observes, the filters we really have to worry about are those that are opaque about their operations and on by default. A map of Vancouver overlaid with my friends’ recommendations is one thing; one that recommends restaurants based on paid advertisements and doesn’t reveal this practice is another entirely. The map I want is the one that lets me shuffle not just through my friends’ preferences but through annotations from different groups: first time visitors to the city; long-time Vancouverites; foodies; visitors from Japan, Korea or China.

When we wander a city, we encounter thousands of signals about ways other people use the space. The crowd waiting to get into one bar and the empty stools in another; a lively basketball court in one playground, mothers with toddlers in another, unused benches in a third. People’s actions inscribe their intentions onto a city. The newly planted grass in a park becomes crisscrossed with paths, worn to dirt by people’s footsteps. Frustrating as these “desire lines” are for landscapers, they send invaluable signals to urban planners about where people are coming from and going to, and how they want to use a space.

Online spaces are often so anxious to show me how my friends are using a space that they obscure how other audiences are using it. In the run up to revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, an enormous amount of reporting (and a not-insignificant amount of organizing) took place on Facebook. If you didn’t have friends in those countries, and specifically in those movements, that activity was entirely invisible. It’s possible to find out what’s popular on Facebook to an audience broader than that of your friends. The Pages directory shows stars, bands and brands with audiences in the hundreds of thousands and millions – strolling through it is a pretty fascinating tour of what’s popular in the Philippines, Colombia and Nigeria, as well as in the US or Canada. Facebook has the data on the desire lines, but they bury it deep within a site rather than bringing it front and center. Twitter’s Trending Topics in an example of making these desire lines visible – we may not know what “Cala Boca Galvao” means when it shows up as a trending topic, or care that #welovebieber, but at least we get indications of what matters to those outside of our list of friends.

Whether we click on an unfamiliar Twitter tag or explore someone else’s annotations of a city map, we’re choosing to stray from our ordinary path. Cities offer multiple ways to wander, as well as a philosophical stance – the flâneur – that prizes wandering as strategy for encountering the city. I think two particular forms of structured wandering have strong potential to be useful in wandering through online spaces.

A few weeks ago, I met an old friend for lunch in New York City. In the twenty years since we’d last met, he’d become a leading figure in the US Communist Party (an organization that, I confess, I thought had disappeared sometime in the late 1960s). As we walked from a restaurant to his office, across from the legendary Chelsea Hotel, he pointed to otherwise unremarkable office and apartment buildings and told me stories about the unions that had built them, the tenants’ rights struggles that had unfolded, the famous Communists, Socialists and labor activists who’d slept, worked and partied under each roof. Our twenty block walk became a curated tour of the city, an idiosyncratic map that caused me to look closely at buildings that would otherwise have been background noise. I begged him to turn his tour of the city into an annotated map, a podcast walking tour, anything that would allow a broader audience to look at the city through his lens, and I hope he will.

One of the reasons curation is such a helpful strategy for wandering is that it reveals community maxima. It can be helpful to know that Times Square is the most popular tourist destination in New York if only so we can avoid it. But knowing where Haitian taxi cab drivers go for goat soup is often useful data on where the best Haitian food is to be found. Don’t know if you like Haitian food? Try a couple of the local maxima – the most important places to the Haitian community – and you’ll be able to discern the answer to that question pretty quickly. It’s unlikely you dislike the food because it’s badly made, as it’s the favorite destination for that community – it’s more likely that you simply don’t like goat soup. (Oh well, more for me.) If you want to explore beyond the places your friends think are the most enjoyable, or those the general public thinks are enjoyable, you need to seek out curators who are sufficiently far from you in cultural terms and who’ve annotated their cities in their own ways.

Another way to wander in a city is to treat it as a game board. I’m less likely to explore Vancouver by following a curated map than I am by searching for geocaches. Within five kilometers of this conference center, there are 140 packages hidden somewhere in plain sight, each containing a logbook to sign and, possibly, mementos to trade with fellow players. As a geocacher, it’s something of a moral imperative to find as many of those caches as time allows during your visit to an unfamiliar city. In the process, you’re likely to stray far from the established tourist sites of the city, if only because it’s hard to hide caches in such busy places. Instead, you’ll end up in forgotten corners, and often in places where the person who placed the cache wanted you to see something unexpected, historic or beautiful. Geocaching is its own peculiar form of community annotation, where the immediate goal is leaving your signature on someone else’s logbook, but the deeper goal is encouraging you to explore in a way you otherwise wouldn’t.

Other games make explicit the connection of exploring to expanding civic capital. SF0, founded by a trio of Chicagoans transplanted to San Francisco, was designed to encourage players to discover things they’d never seen or done in the city, in a way that encouraged independence and exploration. Their game, SF0, invites you to score points by carrying out tasks, many of which are surreal, silly or surprising. You score by documenting your “praxis” and posting photos, videos and other evidence of the intervention. What’s so exciting to me about the game is how many tasks are specifically designed to encourage encounters with unfamiliar people or locations – one task requires you to convince total strangers to invite you into their house for dinner. The players who’ve completed the task report that it was surprisingly easy and that their hosts seemed to appreciate the random, unexpected contact as much as the players did. (More musings on SF0 in this blog post.)

Not all games are played by groups. Many years ago, Jonathan Gold set up a game mechanic for himself the year he decided to eat at every restaurant along Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. The resulting article, “The Year I Ate Pico“, is an amazing exploration of the diversity of ethnic food available in that city, and his path down Pico helped launch his Counter Intelligence column for the LA Weekly. That work that eventually won him a Pulitzer, the first one awarded to a food critic. I see some of the same mechanics in the wonderfully strange project, “International Death Metal Month“, where the curators are mining YouTube to find death metal bands in each of 195 UN-recognized nations. Perhaps Botswanan death metal is unlikely to become your personal cup of tea, but using your set of interests as a lens through which to view the world is a time-honored xenophilic tactic used by the likes of Anthony Bourdain or Dhani Jones.

There’s a danger in taking these geographic metaphors too far. As attractive as we can make the game mechanics, as compelling as we can make the curation, it still takes a long time to get from the Bronx to Staten Island. One ability we have in digital spaces is to change proximities – we can sort bits any way we want to, to reshuffle our cities any way we can imagine. We can create neighborhoods that are all waterfront, all park, all brick buildings, all eight story buildings built in 1920 and discover who and what we encounter in these new spaces.

My friends at the Harvard Library Innovation Lab have been experimenting with reshuffling the library shelve, one of the most powerful structures we have to encourage constructive stumbling through an information landscape. Sorted by subject, we start with what we think we want to know and expand our search visually, broadening the topics we consider as our eyes move away from our initial search. As we scan the stacks, there’s information available about a book from its appearance – its age, its size. Width tells us whether the volume is brief or long, height is often a hint at whether a book contains pictures, as tall books tend to feature colored photos.

ShelfLife, a new tool developed at the Lab, offers the ability to reshelve books using these physical factors – size, width, height, age – as well as by data like subject, author, popularity with a group of professors or a group of students. The goal is to take what’s useful about physical ways of organizing and the implicit information conveyed in those schemes and combine it with the flexibility or organizing digital information. Combining the insights we may find from studying the organization of cities with the ability to reshuffle and sort digitally may let us think about designing online spaces for serendipity in different and powerful ways.

This isn’t a talk that ends with conclusions – it ends with questions. I don’t have a good sense of exactly which insights we might take from studying cities are best applied in virtual spaces – for me, these questions are best answered with experiments:

– How do we design physical spaces to encourage serendipity?
– What lessons about serendipity in physical spaces can we bring into the virtual realm?
– How can we annotate the physical world, digitally, in ways that expand our encounters with the world, rather than limiting them?

Algorithms, Unbirthdays and Rewiring Facebook

Tuesday was my birthday, and I spent the day largely offline. That meant that Wednesday morning, my email inbox featured hundreds of messages from Facebook, each alerting me to a birthday greeting on my Wall. (I’m an infrequent Facebook user, so I usually find these sorts of alerts useful and haven’t disabled them.) On the one hand, this outpouring of online affection was wonderful – I felt grateful to be remembered by people I’ve not spoken to since high school.

On the other hand, it’s basically impossible to respond to the flood of messages with anything other than “Thanks!” And, of course, there’s usually nothing to the message than the greeting itself – the message is symbolic, not substantive. Which left me thinking

– I should be better about logging onto Facebook and sending my own symbolic, semantically void greetings

and then

– I should write a Facebook ap that partitions my friends into 365 roughly equally sized groups and encourages me to say hi to that specific, small set of people on that day. I’d occasionally reach someone on their birthday (though I could add additional logic to pick only unbirthday folks.) Unbirthday notes would arrive on days when people weren’t overwhelmed, and might actually spark a conversation and a chance to catch up.

Socially transgressive, or a helpful hack for building actual conversations between out of touch friends? Would other people resist such a rewiring of Facebook and the social norms it embodies, or embrace it?

One of the reasons I don’t use Facebook often is that it seems to be wired to persuade me to behave in ways that I don’t find especially productive. It’s great that I can catch up with most of my high school friends via Facebook, and I’m glad to have the opportunity for a glimpse into their lives… but in many cases, these are folks I’d love to check in with once a year or so, not every day. Facebook is utterly brilliant in finding people I used to know, from elementary school classmates to ex-girlfriends. I suspect if I used it better, it would do an excellent job of helping me maintain closer ties with these friends, turning weak ties into stronger ones. What I’ve not found a good way to do is to use Facebook to discover people I don’t know and would like to (something that happens to me all the time through retweets on Twitter).

Are there ways to rewire Facebook to try to create a specific sort of serendipity – discovery of people, places and things outside of your ordinary orbit, but exciting and interesting nevertheless? What would an algorithm look like, and does Facebook expose enough data to make it possible to build such a tool?

In 1994, Pattie Maes started working on RINGO, a music recommendation system, at MIT’s Media Lab. The logic behind it was deceptively simple – rate your fondess for twenty musicians or bands, and RINGO would start to suggest music you might like. Behind the scenes, RINGO used a collaborative filtering (CF) algorithm which determined which other users of the system had liked many of the same artists, concluded that you might have similar tastes, and recommended other bands that user had liked. The RINGO system became Agents Inc. and later Firefly and was purchased by Microsoft, where aspects of the system became the basis for Microsoft Passport.

Collaborative filtering algorithms can produce very impressive results, especially if they’re used in a well-defined realm (music, movies, etc.) with sufficient information to extrapolate from. Amazon and other online merchants use them to offer recommendations, which – though occasionally bizarre – are often quite helpful.

The limitation of this algorithm, for my purposes, is that it’s based on looking for users who are similar and then offering their preferences. It’s easy to imagine this running into limitations over time – if I list only 1980s hair metal as my 20 ur-bands, a CF algorithm will rapidly close the set, finding other folks who like hair metal and listing their favorite bands, including the truly obscure ones. It’s possible that this method will also find me the best Qawwali music if someone happens to like both Whitesnake and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, but it’s probably not the fastest way to discover something unexpected and excellent from outside my set of existing interests.

(I may be entirely wrong about that last sentence, by the way. One of the most intriguing conclusions Duncan Watts comes to in Six Degrees is that small world networks – networks in which it is possible to find a connection between two unrelated people through a small number of links – are possible because while two friends have lots of friends in common, they also are likely to have a small number of friends not in common. In other words, if you and I both like the Beatles and the Band, we’re both likely to like the Rolling Stones, but it’s just possible that I might like the Dresden Dolls and you like Fourtet… which might mean we can get from Whitesnake to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan if we follow the right links in our network…)

My old friend Dave Arnold (now a famous chef and blogger) became a massive Bob Marley fan in high school by deciding he wanted to know something about reggae – a style of music he’d never heard – so walked into the local music store and bought a CD by the artist who seemed to be most popular in the reggae section. (Trust me, if you were a sheltered kid in 1980s Westchester County, NY, it was possible to make it to age 15 without having heard of Bob Marley.)

It’s my guess that the Arnold/Marley algorithm isn’t a bad first pass at an algorithm to make serendipitous discoveries. Find a set of unfamiliar people, places or things and look for the most popular in the set. Often, there’s a good reason something is popular. Try that and see if you’re intrigued. If not, you could dig deeper into the set, though you’re probably best off trying the most popular from another set.

How does this help us with Facebook and serendipity?

Facebook is all about popularity. It’s high school with less acne. (That may also not be true – I have no working online acne-detection algorithms.) You can track who’s got the most friends, what applications have the most users, what groups have the most members. All throughout the web, you have the opportunity to improve someone’s score, clicking the insidious “Like!” button.

However, Facebook doesn’t like revealing the scoreboard, except when there’s a business case to do so. In the past year, Facebook has evidently done a great job of encouraging certain types of advertisers – “Bands, Businesses, Restaurants, Brands and Celebrities” – to drive people to their Fan pages. Nick Burcher tracks these sorts of things, and he’s got lists from May 2008 to October 2010. There’s a pretty fascinating shift from mid-2009 to mid-2010 – in 2009, people are fans of abstract things (sleep, vacations, the beach, pizza) and by the next year, brands have won out (YouTube, Lady Gaga, Family Guy, Coca Cola.)

Before I found Burcher’s lists, I started making my own from Facebook’s directory of pages. Each letter includes a list of top twenty pages with the corresponding number of fans. So A is for AKON, AC/DC, Alicia Keys and Aston Kutcher, B is for Bob Marley, Beyoncé and so on. I found only only 20 pages listed in the directory with more than 10 million fans (a totally arbitrary cut-off) – my guess is that the directory’s top 20 isn’t comprehensive as Barack Obama (with 17 million fans) doesn’t make the B or O directory pages, while Michelle Obama, with 3.3 million fans, is #12 on the M page.

My top 20 list, or Burcher’s top 30, isn’t going to surprise you – the most unfamiliar figure on the list to US audiences would be Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo, otherwise lost in a sea of pop stars and cartoons. But the folks listed lower down in the top 20 lists on each directory page get pretty interesting.

A.R. Rahman, India’s famous film composer, sneaks onto the A page with 2.6 million fans, and the music streamable from his page (including international hit “Jai Ho”, the theme song from Slumdog Millionaire) isn’t a bad introduction to Indian film music, including the current, unfortunate embrace of autotune. Reggaeton star Daddy Yankee, Turkish balladeer Emre Aydin and Colombian rocker Juanes all boast between one and five million fans, suggesting that while they’re not international megastars, they’ve got huge followings in their regions, and might serve as excellent introductions to what’s going on in that corner of the musical world.

Of course, there’s other places where the Arnold/Marley algorithm might find you an interesting cultural figure, but not offer much help in understanding his importance. Take Mario Teguh, who has 3.3 million fans on his Bahasa Indonesia language Facebook page. Not speaking a world of the language, I assumed he was an Indonesian politician. Wikipedia’s not much help either – while his Indonesian Facebook page is well-developed, he doesn’t merit a page in the English-language Wikipedia. Teguh, from what I’m able to gather online, reading his Facebook page in translation, is a motivational speaker, philosopher and business coach with a popular show on Jakarta’s MetroTV.

Discovering that Teguh is popular on Facebook tells me a few things. One, there are a lot of Indonesians on Facebook. (According to Burcher, there are now 32 million Indonesians on Facebook, vaulting the country past the UK for the #2 spot in terms of Facebook users. Internet World Stats projects only 30 million Indonesians online, which suggests either that someone’s got their numbers wrong, or that Facebook penetration in Indonesia is amazingly high. The probable explanation is that many Indonesians access Facebook via mobile phone and may not show up in IWS’s stats.) A second is that I’m probably not going to have much luck penetrating Indonesian culture online without a guide and translator. Music show Dahysat and comedy show Opera Van Java both boast a few million fans. The latter looks particularly fascinating:

From what I can tell, Opera Van Java is a comedy show that combines aspects of traditional Javanese puppet theatre, including accompaniment by gamelan musicians, with sketch comedy. If I were to venture a guess, I’d suggest that the actors might be playing the parts that traditionally would have been played by puppets, acting out famous stories… in this case, the story of Drunken Master, the legendary 1978 Jackie Chan film. What I desperately want is someone who’s knowledgeable about contemporary Indonesian culture, traditional Javanese puppetry and fluent in English to walk me through this video and help me understand the popularity of this show. Here, my glimpse of Indonesia through Facebook shows me little more than there’s something potentially fascinating and thoroughly inaccessible without translation and bridging.

And that’s okay – my goal isn’t to solve the whole problem of encountering another culture through a single algorithm. I’ve been making the argument that using the internet to discover a wider view of the world involves some combination of translation, cultural bridging, and structured stumbling, and this Facebook directory trick suggests at least one way we could stumble in the direction of understanding what’s popular and compelling in another corner of the world.

The tricky part of using this algorithm is figuring out what’s popular where. Some years back, Amazon published lists of what books were most popular in particular geographic locations, based on an aggregation of people’s purchasing information. Choose a city like Barcelona or Cape Town and you might get a very different view on what literature might be interesting to explore. Unfortunately, they’ve disabled the feature (probably due to privacy concerns) and replaced it with “customer communities“, opt-in affiliations which may help you find serendipity within a topic, but reflect what’s popular in a community of interest, rather than a physical community elsewhere in the world. It’s worth noting that Amazon has this data – if someone could make the case that knowing what’s hot in Tokyo or Turin was exciting for a US or UK audience, and if there’s a way around privacy concerns, you could sort the Amazon catalog to enable this sort of serendipity. (Indeed, my friends working on ShelfLife at Harvard are asking questions like “Can we reveal what books are popular with philosophy grad students, without compromising their individual privacy? And is this useful information to help other people discover new books?”)

One of the few sites I know that offers good, regularly updated charts of what’s popular in different countries is Alexa, which tracks the top 100 most popular websites per country. Again, the top sites (which inevitably include Facebook and YouTube) aren’t as interesting as what’s in a second tier, like Taringa, a community bulletin board site popular in Latin America. If we were rewiring Alexa to help find what’s exciting in other parts of the world, we might do a diff between the list of what’s popular in our home region and in another country.

Of course, what I really want is to know what’s popular within massive sites like YouTube and Facebook which are visited by users around the world. What videos are most popular in Malaysia? Pete Warden offers a great visualization that shows us who (some) people in different nations are connected to on Facebook, what their first names are likely to be, and who they like – Nigeria, for instance, is particularly fascinating, in that the two most “liked” are charismatic preachers, not athletes or rap stars. Would we use tools like Facebook and YouTube differently, if the platforms themselves tried rewiring themselves for discovery and serendipity, rather than relying on outsiders guessing at popularity and connections from outside the walls?

Games that help us wander

Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe’s map of a young woman’s journeys through Paris, 1957

In 1957, French sociologist Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe made a map of Paris: “Trajects pendant un an d’une jeune fille du XVIe arrondissement”. It’s an idiosyncratic map, based on the movements of a single individual, a young woman studying at the school of political science. A triangle emerges from her movements – the vertices are her residence, the university and the home of her piano teacher.

Such maps are becoming routine these days – we generate them involuntarily, as the cellphones most of us carry with us leak this locative data, at minimum to our telephone carriers, if not to other audiences. If we engage in certain kinds of online behavior – checking in via Foursquare, posting to Twitter with geolocation – we may be generating maps visible to the general public.

Zachary Seward’s map of New York City, via his Foursquare check-ins. From his article on the WSJ’s blog site.

Outreach editor for the Wall Street Journal, Zachary Seward, posted this map, generated from a year’s worth of his check-ins on Foursquare. He observes that we can make several guesses about him based on the data – where he lives and works, what baseball team he roots for, and perhaps, his race. He notes – not proudly – that his orbits through Harlem intersect almost exclusively with neighborhoods with lower percentages of African American inhabitants: “Census data can describe the segregation of my block, but how about telling me how segregated my life is? ”

Looking at Chombart de Lauwe’s map – made many decades before such maps became easy to draw – French Situationist Guy Debord offered the uncharitable, but striking observation that we should feel “outrage at the fact that anyone’s life can be so pathetically limited.”

Debord’s observation applies to individuals beyond this one student – as de Lauwe observed of his map, it illustrates “the narrowness of the real Paris in which each individual lives.” While she didn’t stray far beyond the 16th Arrondisment, and Seward’s Manhattan is concentrated heavily around the Upper West Side, we all frequent a tiny subset of the physical world that’s open and available to us.

(Steve Dietz discusses de Lauwe’s map and Debord’s reaction in “Mapping the Urban Homunculus” – very grateful to have found his excellent essay.)

We might be outraged at the narrowness of the worlds we end up inhabiting, or we might accept that all of Paris or New York is simply too large for one human to inhabit and interact with, without selecting a comfortable and familiar subset to choose to explore in depth. Like Seward, we could start to analyze the maps we generate and find ways to question or change our behavior. Or we could try to address this phenomenon of world-narrowing head on and tackle it as a challenge to be solved.

In 2005, Sam Lavigne, Ian Kizu-Blair and Sean Mahan moved from Chicago to San Francisco, and started building an alternate reality game designed to encourage players to discover things they’d never seen or done in the city, in a way that encouraged independence and exploration. Their game, SF0, invites you to score points by carrying out tasks, many of which are surreal, silly or surprising. You score by documenting your “praxis” and posting photos, videos and other evidence of the intervention.

At the moment, players can score points by giving a pig a pancake, convincing complete strangers to invite them into their home for dinner, reverse shoplifting (placing items in a store so that they may be purchased), challenging random people to contests of strength or inserting information into a place that lacks it, or through dozens of other tasks. Sign up as a new member and you’ll discover that the tasks open to you are the easiest to complete – others require you to “level up” and demonstrate your competence as a operative before you can take them on. And you can marvel at some of the completed projects, like Britt++’s conversion of a bus stop into a nightclub chill-out room, or babe’s book about eating books made from pasta.

There’s a loose, conspiratorial narrative that provides a bit of organizing framework for the tasks – those sponsored by the BART Psychogeographical Association focus on the way people move through places (especially San Francisco), while those from the Society for Nihilistic and Disruptive Efforts focus on “administering a wedgie to the world”. Administer sufficiently inventive social wedgies and you’ll advance in rank and be able to undertake larger tasks.

What’s fascinating to me is that the game seems to work quite well, despite being almost solely player-generated. The tasks are created by players for others to complete, and despite a very broad definition of what might be allowable as a task, there are clear, deeper themes that emerge from reading some of the tasks. Most are efforts to make the world a surprising and wonderful place, to encourage people to go places they wouldn’t normally wander and to speak to people they’d generally ignore, to question societal conventions and the force of habit in a way that’s playful and provocative, though not confrontational. Hints abound that the game’s creators are fans of Debord specifically, and of Situationism in general, though it’s not clear that everyone playing is up on their 1960s French Marxists. And SF0 seems far less likely to lead to a series of factory strikes in the Bay Area than it is to encourage people towards random acts of kindness.

(I don’t follow this space very closely, but I was surprised not to have heard of SF0 until it appeared on Metafilter yesterday. Near as I can tell, only a few thousand people have signed up thus far. I suspect this is in part because it’s had a fairly tight geographic focus until recently… but I also wonder if it’s been a conscious decision of the creators to invite a small group of players who share their values in building the culture of the game, rather than seeking a very wide audience.)

Game designer and ARG pioneer Jane McGonigal believes that games can change the world for the better. In her recent TED talk, she wonders aloud whether the billions of person hours of time, creativity and energy spent playing games like World of Warcraft could be refocused on solving problems in the real world rather than in virtual worlds. Her point is related to Clay Shirky’s observations about cognitive surplus, and the insight that projects like Wikipedia are produced with the “spare cycles” made possible by the industrial revolution, and now liberated from more passive pursuits, like watching TV or drinking gin. (Or both, at the same time, which is how I prefer to spend my downtime.)

But McGonigal’s point is less general, and more focused on the special nature of games. The best games stimulate our problem-solving instincts, encourage our creativity in trying novel and unusual solutions, and intensely capture our attention and focus. If we build games that encourage us to solve real problems as well the ones game designers concoct to challenge us, perhaps we can harness that focus, energy and creativity. Her games have included World Without Oil, designed to help players discover solutions to the social unrest and disruption likely to arise in a world of $7/gallon gasoline (for my non-US readers, yes, the idea of petrol at $1.80 per liter is sufficiently provocative to get Americans to think about social transformation), and Urgent Evoke, built with the World Bank and designed to train a generation of social entrepreneurs around the world, with a focus on the developing world.

I participated in Urgent Evoke, first as a player, and later as a “mentor” to other players – while it was a fascinating experience, it felt at least as much like a brainstorming and training session than it did like a traditional “game”. I think the challenge for McGonigal is the same for anyone exploring “serious games” – how do you ensure they’re serious while ensuring they’ve got some of the joy and excitement that comes from traditional, entertainment-first games?

My guess is that one way to solve that problem comes from building games that are open enough to generate multiple forms of gameplay. For the past year, I’ve been fascinated by geocaching, seeing it as an invitation to stray from the de Lauwean paths we all tread and explore in detail the places we mindlessly pass through. But that’s not the way everyone plays the game. One group of cachers uses their “hides” as a set of local history lessons – searching for a cache near my home led me through three of the historical sites in New Ashford, MA. Others use the framework of the game as a way of trading collectible tokens and exchanging small gifts with people around the world. The idea behind the game – hide something in the real world and publish GIS coordinates so others can find it – is broad enough that you can play your way and I can play mine, and neither of us is wrong.

The flip side, of course, is that a game that’s too open doesn’t feel sufficiently gamelike. I’ve been fascinated with The Nethernet (formerly PMOG), a web-based game that you play through following links between webpages. I wrote about the site some years back, noting that the idea of “playing the Internet” seems like a great way to encourage people to stumble into unfamiliar corners of the web. Unfortunately, the project seems to have lost its backing, and I stopped playing a long time ago, both because it didn’t work well for me as a game or as a serendipity engine.

The problem I’m most interested in solving is similar to the one The Nethernet promised to help with and which SF0 seems to address: I want to help people discover the intellectual and informational ruts we all fall into, and find creative ways to crawl out of those ruts. I’m increasingly convinced that it’s little use to simply make people feel bad or guilty that we don’t pay enough attention to the political crisis in Ivory Coast or prison conditions in the US. We all need help stumbling on the information we didn’t know we needed and hadn’t realized we were missing. McGonigal is right – there’s something powerful about games that might be able to be harnessed to help us broaden our worlds. If SF0 can help – slowly, strangely, randomly – heal and transform a city, how might we build games that encourage us to wander through a broader world?

« Previous Entries

Powered by WordPress | Designed by Elegant Themes