… My heart’s in Accra Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

February 12, 2013

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

Filed under: Africa,Berkman,Developing world,xenophilia — Ethan @ 6:46 pm

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 match.com, 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. Plentyoffish.com, 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?

June 20, 2012

When the world is your dance teacher

Filed under: ideas,xenophilia — Ethan @ 2:43 pm

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.

May 12, 2011

CHI keynote: Desperately Seeking Serendipity

Filed under: ideas,Media,xenophilia — Ethan @ 8:30 pm

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 Republic.com, 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 Nawaat.org 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?

January 6, 2011

Algorithms, Unbirthdays and Rewiring Facebook

Filed under: ideas,Media,xenophilia — Ethan @ 1:18 pm

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?

January 3, 2011

Games that help us wander

Filed under: ideas,xenophilia — Ethan @ 6:20 pm


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?

December 15, 2010

Wayne Marshall on Nu Whirled Music… and my thoughts, too…

Filed under: Berkman,ideas,xenophilia — Ethan @ 3:06 pm

For Tuesday’s Berkman lunch, we’re blessed with a visit from DJ, blogger and ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall, one of my favorite chroniclers of the future of digital culture. His talk is titled “The Unstable Platforms and Uneasy Peers of Brave New World Music“, a title that we could probably spend an hour unpacking.

Wayne’s talk is timely, perhaps, because of the current attention to the events of Wikileaks cablegate and the takedown of Wikileaks from Amazon. “What people take to be public platforms turn out to be anything but, and our spaces for free speech are not necessarily so free.” They’re unpredictable spaces for public speech because they’re commercial spaces. And what happens to music in these spaces may prefigure other developments in online spaces. “The ways in which culture and music are routed through the web show us some of the fault lines in public culture,” Marshall argues. “We can hear some of these songs and dances as ‘canaries in the coal mine'” of online culture – sometimes, these works disappear before our eyes due to decisions made by tool and platform owners.

One of the signatures of new world music, Marshall argues, is the watermark. Many of the audio tracks and videos that define new music scenes are marked with watermarks left by unlicensed demo software. He suggests that these watermarks may be becoming part of the aesthetics of these new forms. The people producing them are using professional-grade tools and pushing them to a public that’s potentially limitless in size. But the watermarks suggest they’ve got a different set of priorities than most producers – they’re less concerned with polish than with immediacy and immersion in the moment.

He shows this video from LA dance crew Marvel, Inc. This is one of the groups associated with the “Jerkin'” movement, a street dance associated with a small set of high schools in LA. Dance crews often take their names from comic books and cartoons, hence “Marvel Inc.” Marshall points out that the dances take place in public places, on sidewalks and in traffic-filled streets, and suggests that jerk is about public performance, both “in public places and in places as public as YouTube”. The video is a promotion for them as a crew, and for the music they’re using – the tracks danced to are listed, as is digitaldripped.com, a site that shares links to new hiphop beats and tracks. (The tracks associated with Jerkin’ are usually not available for purchase, Marshall explains – they’re downloads, not traditional releases.) And the video is heavily tagged, not just with the Marvel Inc. name and “jerkin”, but with names of rival crews and other artists associated with the movement. Despite the watermark on the video, other aspects of production and distribution suggest a high degree of care and savvy, creating a non-commercial circulation mechanism intended for their local (and perhaps, global) peers.

Watermarks appear in audio tracks as well. One of the key Jerkin’ tracks is “Buckle My Shoe” by Fly Kidd. Every few seconds, a British female voice announces “AVS Media Demo” in the midst of a catchy track. Marshall has looked for an “original” version of the track without the audio watermark and hasn’t been able to find one. The track used to be available on YouTube, but it’s been taken down, perhaps due to a copyright complaint. Now it’s available on Dailymotion, where you can’t see the video until sitting through a 30-second ad. “These are our public platforms,” Marshall tells us, “riddled with pop-up ads and watermarks”.

These platforms and tools may be rough around the edges, but they’re easy to use and easy to learn. One of the seminal Jerk tracks – “You’re a Jerk” by New Boyz – was produced using Fruity Loops, a commercial software package designed for easy loop creation. (The program offers a downloadable demo, and Marshall tells us that unlicensed and unlocked copies change hands frequently online.) It’s easy to find instructional videos on YouTube that show you how to make hiphop beats in Fruity Loops, which lowers barriers to producing new tracks. The New Boyz put a beat together, added rhymes over it and uploaded the audio track to their MySpace page. People in the Jerkin’ community began making videos of themselves dancing to the song and posting them to YouTube, which allowed the Boyz to track their success by searching YouTube for their names.

You’re unlikely to find a good version of the song this way anymore. The track became so popular that the New Boyz were signed to a small record label, and that label’s parent company (Warner Brothers) evidently asked YouTube to identify videos using the music. You can find the “official” version of the video (above), which has been viewed over 45 million times on YouTube. (I mention that last statistic for those who, like me, hadn’t heard about Jerk and briefly thought we had an insight into underground American youth culture. Little late for that, evidently…) People who’d posted videos using the song were told by YouTube that they either needed to mute the audio or choose another musical track to accompany their videos. That led to some very strange videos like the one below:

This video shows the Action Figures crew dancing to “You’re a Jerk” – it’s one of the videos that helped break the song, and Action Figures are featured in the “official” You’re a Jerk video. But this video now sports a strange, synthesized, neo-tribal beat that’s pretty far from anything the dancers originally performed to. Action Figures get to keep their video up, and perhaps benefit if anyone buys the (dreadful) track they’re now featuring, but the original video, important in popularizing Jerkin’ is now a very different document.

Whole sites and the ecosystems they support can disappear as well. Marshall shows us a screenshot of Jamglue, a site that served as an audio YouTube, allowing you to upload, sequence and remix audio tracks. A search for “Jerkin” revealed 775 mixes and 812 tracks. When the site shut down, not only did the content disappear, but people’s profiles, information on what tracks they’d liked and disliked and other metadata was lost as well. (I suggested to Marshall that there’s an odd parallel to traditional ethnomusicology here. Pioneers like Hugo Zemp spent their careers visiting people whose cultures were in danger of extinction from assimilation or the death of elders and recording their music. Perhaps we’ll start seeing modern ethnomusicologists documenting fragile digital cultures before their extinction.)

If the platforms that support this new music are unstable, Marshall tells us, the peers involved are uneasy. The people building the Jerkin’ scene were using digital tools to communicate with local friends, often people they knew in the “real world”. But the tools they used ensured that their work circulated more widely, which in turn led to some fascinating remixes.

This version – “El Paso del Jerk” – from Panama uses the backing track from “You’re a Jerk” and updates it with a Spanish rap. The accompanying video steals large chunks from the official video, but inserts scenes of Panamanian youth performing the dance steps… and also sporting some of the fashions and cellphones featured in the American video. Marshall sees this as “Panamanian kids inserting themselves into global styles,” demonstrating that they’re part of a global trend, not just in music, but in fashion and style. Marshall notes that it’s harder for YouTube to automatically remove videos like this one – because the track has new vocals, it’s not visible to YouTube’s systems in the same way as slightly distorted versions of the original are.

Other adoption of Jerkin’ are closer to a fusion – “Yaba Daba Du” is a new “Jerk Bow” song that combines aspects of Jerk with “dem bow“, a distinctly Dominican version of Jamaican reggaeton. The dance steps featured in the video include elements that are recognizably from Jerkin’, as well as moves that are clearly local. And you can see elements of Jerkin’ fashion (backpacks, tight jeans, neon colors) meshing with other fashion statements.

The frontiers of this new musical space are being documented in blogs like Dave Quam’s “It’s After the End of the World” and “Ghetto Bassquake“, which document local dance genres around the world: Cumbia, Bubbling, Dancehall, Chicago Dancehall, Jerking, Kuduro and more. This music isn’t generally termed “world music” – it circulates as “global bass music” or “global ghettotech”. Marshall wonders about the motivations in featuring this music, noting that on some blogs it can turn into “flavor of the month”. Generously citing my work, he wonders whether we’ll see more blogs acting as bridges between musical cultures, not just featuring what’s going on in Angola or Panama, but translating and contextualizing. At present, though, that sort of translation doesn’t always happen.

This new musical space challenges the old definitions about “world music” – it’s no longer about the West and the rest, the Global North and Global South, Marshall offers. Jerkin’ can circulate around the world, moving from one “ghetto” to another, whether or not those neighborhoods are actually poor or are simply asserting themselves as part of global urban culture. We need to think through the problems that come from these uneasy peers – how do we understand each other and learn from each other’s adoption and remix of these influences? And how do we solve the problems we face with our platforms. It’s great to celebrate the ways people have worked through and around these constraints, but we also need to address the limitations.


David Weinberger and Jillian York both liveblogged the talk, and did a better job getting down comments and questions than I did, as I was moderating the discussion. And if you’ve got time, you might enjoy the video of the talk and the questions and answers that followed.

I should also mention that Wayne is a tremendous blogger and writes about these issues at length at Wayne and Wax – if you’re interested in what he had to say, you should go there immediately.


There are at least two big ideas I’m deeply interested in that came out in Wayne’s talk, which is why I was so thrilled he joined us at Berkman. First, the issue of corporate control of platforms and its influence on the spread of media is something where lessons from the music world may spread into other realms. You can argue that Wikileaks is, in a weird way, an outgrowth of Napster: once you digitize something, a song or a secret, its spread online may be inevitable. But that spread can be checked by decisions made by people who own the platforms on which we exchange digital information. YouTube might have argued that an original dance video to a copyrighted track could be entitled to a fair use defense and forced copyright holders to challenge “offenders” one by one, rather than building tools for mass content removal. Amazon could have demanded an injunction before ordering Wikileaks off its servers. I don’t mean to suggest a moral equivalence between these actions – I’m far more sympathetic to YouTube than to Amazon here – but it’s worth recognizing that platforms are shaped by corporate decisions, made for business reasons, and that these decisions may not be in the best interests of free speech or free culture. Whether the answer is pressuring corporate actors to change their behavior to protect public forms of expression on their platforms or to build platforms more free of corporate influence isn’t clear to me. But Wayne’s examples are a reminder that these platform constraints can be subtle and far-reaching.

Second, I’m interested in the idea that music might have more mobility in crossing national, linguistic and cultural borders than other forms of media, and as such, I’m pretty fascinated in what global bass music might tell us about cultural adoption, fusion or bridging. I’ve been thinking about encounters between cultures through a lens provided by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart in their book “Cosmopolitan Communications“. Norris and Inglehart are interested in the question of whether encountering media from other cultures changes ones cultural values. They look at the spread of news and entertainment media across national borders and analyze the World Values Survey to try and determine whether encountering media from other cultures changes local values.

They suggest that four things might happen when we encounter media from another culture:
– We might embrace it and it could overwhelm our local culture. (This is a fear often cited with regards to the spread of US culture – the fear of the McDonaldization of the world – and used to justify cultural protection legislation.)
– We might violently reject the other culture and ban it, as the Taliban has done with aspects of western culture
– We might embrace the outside influences and incorporate them into a hybrid culture, creating something new and interesting, like the majestic Bánh mì sandwich, in my opinion, the tastiest byproduct of European colonialism yet discovered.
– We might encounter the other culture, acknowledge it as different and choose not to incorporate or reject it.

Norris and Inglehart suggest that reaction #4 – which they refer to as “cultural firewalls” – is the most common, which explains why Paris is still Parisian despite the invasion of Ronald McDonald. Good multiculturalist that I am, I’m excited about reaction #3 and am patiently waiting for my local McDonalds to begin serving kelewele with their new Ghanaian Chicken Shitor Din sandwich. Wayne’s stories offer a good chance to test the possible models of cultural influence.

“Jerk Bow” looks a lot like evidence for reaction #3, the fusion of cultures, with LA meeting Jamaica in the Dominican Republic, and perhaps especially in the Dominican neighborhoods in NYC. At the same time, watching videos of Jerk around the world gives some support for outcome #1 – if you think that McDonalds is a powerful cultural force, take a close look at the international spread of the New York Yankees baseball cap. Hiphop, an art form built atop sampling and appropriation is either being appropriated all over the world, or is America’s leading weapon in a battle for global cultural dominance. I’m not sure I buy Wayne’s assertion that we’re beyond “the west and the rest” that categorized some types of world music – it seems like much of the influence in these musical spaces is flowing out from the US into other cultures and not flowing back into American hiphop. (Wayne points out that Mexican teens in the US are getting down to cumbia and Dominiyorkers to dem bow. And he points to MIA as bringing global influence into mainstream US dance music. I remain unconvinced until Kanye drops a Kuduro single.)

Music apparently has superpowers to leap across cultural borders. I listen to Baaba Maal’s Senegalese pop and I hear piano lines from Cuban jazz… which in turn came from West African influences filtered through the American South and cities along the Mississippi. Baaba Maal doesn’t speak Spanish, but he was able to pick up influences from latin jazz records popular in Senegal in the 1960s and 70s – musical influence can spread without the sorts of translation or cultural contextualization that we need to appreciate much media that crosses national borders on the internet. This superpower can be a curse – the ease of sampling means it’s quite possible to fall victim to “flavor of the month”, as Wayne warns, or to using source material badly or unfairly. The same technology that makes Yabba Dabba Du possible allows Deep Forest to appropriate a Solomon Islands lullaby and pass it off as pygmy music from Central Africa.

Wayne’s talk suggests to me that web video has this same sort of superpower. Not only can it convey music, it carries dance and fashion as well. And if we want to know if we’re assimilating, rejecting, fusing or ignoring cultures as they bump against one another, watching youth culture through the lens of YouTube may be our best lab to carry out these experiments.

July 29, 2010

Counting International Connections on Facebook

Filed under: Geekery,xenophilia — Ethan @ 12:37 pm

My friend Onnik Krikorian has become a Facebook evangelist. Onnik, a Brit of Armenian descent, living in Armenia, is the Global Voices editor for the Caucuses, which means he’s responsible for rounding up blogs from Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan as well as parts of Turkey and Russia. This task is seriously complicated by the long-term tensions in the region. Armenia and Azerbaijan are partisans in a “frozen” conflict – the Nagorno-Karabakh war, which lasted from 1988 – 1994, and remains largely unresolved.

It’s taken Onnik years to build up relationships with bloggers in Azerbaijan, relationships he needs to accurately cover the region. Azeri bloggers are often suspicious of his motives for connecting and wonder whether he’ll cover their thinking and writing fairly. But Onnik tells me that Facebook has emerged as a key space where Azeri and Armenians can interact. “There are no neutral spaces in the real world where we can get to know each other. Facebook provides that space online, and it’s allowing friendships to form that probably couldn’t happen in the physical world.” (Onnik documents some of the conversations taking place between Azeri and Armenian bloggers in a recent post on Global Voices.)

Picture 1
Graph from the front page of peace.facebook.com

Onnik was talking about his love of Facebook at an event hosted by the US Institute for Peace, where I and colleagues at George Washington University and Columbia were presenting research we’d carried out on the use of social media in conflict situations. Onnik’s hopes for Facebook as a platform for peace were echoed by Adam Conner of Facebook, who showed the company’s new site, Peace on Facebook. The site documents friendships formed between people usually separated by geography, religion or politics. Some of the statistics seem clearly like good news – 29,651 friendships between Indians and Pakistanis per day. Others are rather dispiriting – 974 Muslim/Jewish connections in the past 24 hours.

I’m a data junkie, and there’s little more frustrating to me than an incomplete data set. Basically, by showing us a very small portion of the nation to nation social graph, Facebook is hinting that the whole graph is available: not just how many friendships Indian Facebook users form with Pakistani users, but how many they form with Americans, Canadians, Chinese, other Indians, etc. Obviously, this is info I’m interested in – I’ve been building a critique that argues that usage of social networking tools to build connections between people in the same country vastly outpaces use of these tools to cross national, cultural and religious borders.

Without the whole data set, it’s hard to know whether these numbers are encouraging or not. Are 29,651 Indian/Pakistani connections a lot? Or very few, in proportion to how many connections Indians and Pakistanis make on Facebook in total? In other words, we’ve got the numerator, but not the denominator – if we had a picture of how many connections Indians and Pakistanis make per day, we might have a better sense for whether this is an encouraging or discouraging number.

I made a first pass at this question this morning, using data I was able to obtain online. Facebook tells us that the average user has 130 friends – a number that might be out of date, as the same statistics page lists “over 400 million users”, not the half billion currently being celebrated in the media. (Ideally, we’d like to know how many new friends are added per day so we can compare apples to apples, but you got to war with the data you have…)

We also need a sense for how many Facebook users there are per country. Here, we turn to Nick Burcher who publishes tables of Facebook users per country on a regular basis. Nick tells readers that the data is from Facebook, and the Guardian appears to trust his accounts enough to feature those stats on their technology blog. They are, alas, incomplete – Burcher published stats for the 30 countries with the largest number of Facebook users, and revealed a few more countries in the comments thread on the post.

Because we don’t have data for Pakistan, we can’t answer the India/Pakistan question. But we can offer some analysis for Israel/Palestine and Greece/Turkey.

Facebook for Peace tells us that there are 15,747 connections between Israelis and Palestinians for the past 24 hours. The term “connection” is not clearly defined on the site – it’s not clear whether a reciprocated friendship is 1 connection or 2 – because I’m going to count the number of Israeli friends and Palestinian friends, it makes sense to count a reciprocal friendship as two connections. (If Facebook is counting differently than I am, my numbers are going to be half what they should be.)

3,006,460 Israelis are Facebook users… a pretty remarkable number, as it represents 39.92% of the total population of the nation and roughly 57% of the country’s 5.3 million internet users. There are very few Palestinian internet users – 84,240, or 2.24% of the population… This mostly reflects how few Palestinians are online, as Facebook is used by 21% of Palestine’s 400,000 internet users.

At 3,090,700 Palestinian and Israeli Facebook users, we should see almost 402 million friendships involving an Israeli or a Palestinian. If we extrapolate from 15,747 friendships a day to 5.7 million a year, we’re looking at Israeli/Palestinian friendships representing 1.43% of friendships in the Israeli/Palestinian space… with all sorts of caveats. (The biggest is that the use of a year-long interval to calculate total friendships is totally arbitrary and probably not supportable. If you’ve got better data or a suggestion for a better estimation method, please don’t hesitate to speak up.)

We get very different results from looking at Greece and Turkey. 2,838,700 Greeks are Facebook members (25.11% of the national population), while 22,552,540 Turks (31.08% of the population) are. That’s roughly 3.3 billion friendships projected, and our year-long approximation finds us just over 4 million Greek/Turkish connections. That suggests that only 0.12% of friendships in the pool are Turkish/Greek friendships.

What explains the disparity between these numbers? While there’s certainly a long history of tension between Greece and Turkey, the last major military confrontation between the nations ended in 1922. Israel and Palestine, on the other hand, are involved with an active conflict and Israel’s recent incursion into Gaza ended a few months ago. What gives?

It’s possible that the numerous efforts designed to build friendship between Israeli and Palestinian youth are having an impact, much as Onnik’s work in Armenia and Azerbaijan is showing positive results. But there’s another possibility – 20% of the Israeli population are Arab citizen of Israel, and the majority of this set is of Palestinian origin. It’s certainly possible that the high percentage of Israeli/Palestinian friendship includes a large set of friendships between people of Palestinian origin in Israel and Palestinians… indeed, given the difficulty for both populations in meeting in physical space, we’d expect to see increased use of the internet as a meeting space to compensate for the difficulties of meeting in the physical world. This could be a factor in explaining India/Pakistan friendships as well, as well as Albanian/Serbian friendships, as the emergence of new nations through partition and conflict left groups united by cultures, separated by borders.

My goal in this post isn’t to belittle the power of Facebook for providing a border-transcending space where friendships can be built – Onnik’s story makes it clear that Facebook is a real and powerful tool for good, at least in the Armenian/Azeri space. But I continue to think that we overestimate how many of our online contacts cross borders and underestimate how often these tools are used to reinforce local friendships. I’d invite friends at Facebook to correct my numbers or my math… and mention that we could do a much better job of answering these questions if Facebook would release a data set that shows us all the cross-national connections made on the service.

—-

Ross Perez has created some great interactive maps that visualize the adoption of Facebook around the world, using Burcher’s data – worth your time.

May 3, 2010

ROFLCon: From Weird to Wide

Filed under: Developing world,Geekery,ideas,Just for fun,xenophilia — Ethan @ 4:26 pm

An audio version of danah and my keynote is now available for download online. I recommend a background of lolcats – preferably multilingual ones – as you listen.


I gave a dozen public talks last month, and it’s possible that ROFLCon was the most intimidating of the bunch. I was asked by Tim Hwang, internet researcher (and Berkman Center affiliate) co-founder of The Awesome Foundation and of ROFLCon, to kick off the event by co-keynoting with (dear friend) danah boyd. danah actually works in the deep swamps of contemporary internet culture, so ROFLCon – a conference that takes both a loving and scholarly look at the phenomenon of internet memes – is close to home turf for her. I, on the other hand, tend to study things like the impact of cellphones in political organizing in the developing world, and wondered if there was any possible way to connect the sort of issues I work on with a conference that featured Mahir Cagri (of I Kiss You fame), the owner and videographer of Keyboard Cat and the author of Garfield Minus Garfield.

Turns out I was underestimating ROFLCon. Yes, there were panels where the main question seemed to be, “What’s it like to be a microcelebrity”… which may have included the panel danah and I moderated. And yes, there’s nothing to make you feel old and decrepit like walking into a panel where you don’t know a single one of the internet memes being celebrated. (No, I’d never heard of cornify. No, my world has not been substantially broadened by listening to their founder, wearing a unicorn mask, discuss vampires.) On the other hand, the panel on race – I can haz dream? – was one of the best conference panels I’ve ever attended. (If any network execs are reading this blog, let me just point out that a late night show based around Baratunde Thurston and Christian Lander would kill.) And many of the people at the conference seemed to be deeply engaged in the sorts of issues danah and I were talking about – Who creates internet culture? Whose voices are amplified and whose aren’t? What happens when marginal, weird cultures become mainstream?

Alex Leavitt did an excellent job of liveblogging our talks. I thought I’d post my notes and some of my slides as well – the full slide deck is online, though isn’t real useful without accompanying notes, which follow below.


It’s not easy being an academic at a conference like ROFLCon. The stars are the folks who’ve done something wonderful, weird, unforgetable, or so wonderfully weird it’s unforgetable. Those of us who are trying to make observations about the field feel a little like musicologists studying Bach – we can study his compositions exhaustively, but we’re acutely aware that we’re not going to write a mighty fugue. No matter how much I might study internet memes, I know I’m never going to accomplish something as majestic as keyboard cat… and I have to live with that truth every day of my life.

Unlike danah who can actually tell you something about internet culture, I study information in the developing world. Basically, I’m interested in the question of whether the internet, mobile phones and community radio can make people healthier, wealthier and more free.

slide4.004

If you work in this field for very long, you’ll end up realizing that the basic question behind development economics is “Why are some people rich and other people poor?” There are better and worse answers to these questions. Some of the smartest answers focus on which parts of the world had animals and plants that were easily domesticated and which had endemic diseases. Other smart answers look at the ways in which colonialism held back development or look at the problems of bad governance and persistent conflict. Bad answers to the questions focus on the idea that some people are inherently, biologically smarter than others. This idea – “scientific racism” – surfaces throughout history, as the basis for eugenics and more recently in psuedo-scientific analyses of IQ scores.

If you’d like to understand just what a stinking heap of bullshit scientific racism theories are, I recommend spending some time in very poor nations. You’ll discover that many of the people you meet display extraordinary creativity as they navigate the challenges of everday survival. And you’ll start learning about people like William Kamkwamba, whose near death from famine in Malawi didn’t prevent him from building a fiendishly ingenious power-generating windmill from an old bicycle and some recycled PVC pipe.

My time in the developing world suggests to me that intelligence, creativity and humor are evenly distributed throughout the world. People’s ability to express their intelligence, creativity and humor – and our ability to encounter said traits – are heavily geographically constrained, but the basic distribution is near constant.

slide7.007

All of which leads us to the question at hand today: Daddy, where do memes come from? I suspect Drew will be asking me this question any day now, due to Rachel and my egregious tendency to misuse Cafe Press and the fact that we gave him the middle name “Wynn” in part so we could title his blog “For the Wynn“. In answering these questions, I find that I’m usually referring to Randall Munroe’s brilliant
Online Communities map, and to the fertile equatorial regions that extend from the Gulf of YouTube through the Ocean of Subculture. Within this region, there are areas whose soils – turned black with the charring of endless flamewars – are especially fertile for the cultivation of new memes. (sup, /b/?)

slide10.010

I’m interested in mapping memes in a different way. Here’s a quick and dirty map of internet memes extracted from Know Your Meme. Yes, the US and Japan dominate global memetics (or, at least, they do based on the site, which has its own – recognized, now being addressed – cultural biases). But there’s a huge number of memes coming from almost all corners of the globe.

In development economics, we pay special attention to the so-called BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China – who we expect to become increasingly important over the next few decades due to their large populations, natural resources and rates of economic growth. And so we shouldn’t be surprised to find distinctly regional memes emerging from each of these countries – I offer as a gallery of superheroes Brother Sharp from China, Golimar from India, Glazastik from Russia and the legion that is Tenso from Brazil. You may not know who these viral wonders are, but the people who live in these rapidly developing nations do.

Assume I’m right and that creativity has a near-constant distribution. Assume also that access to the internet continues its explosive spread. The inescapable conclusion is that the next wave of internet memes is going to come from the developing world.

It’s already happening – I just watched the first major Kenyan internet meme come to life. The Nairobi-based band called “Just a Band” released a video for a song called “Ha-He” off their new album. The video’s absurdly good – it’s shot by the guys in the band, and it introduces a new superhero: Makmende.

Actually, “Makmende Amerudi” means “Makmende has returned”… “Makmende” was what you called a kid in the neighborhood in Kenyan in the 1990s who wanted to be Bruce Lee. I heard it and assumed that it was a sheng word – “sheng” is the blend of Swahili and English that’s Kenya’s unofficial national language – turns out that “Makmende” is what happens when Kenyans say “Go ahead, make my day”.

So Makmende kicks the ass of all comers in this video, gets the girl… who he promptly ignores, and spouts some incomprehensible but pithy aphorisms. This video went crazy in the Kenyan blogosphere – which is an extremely creative space – and we started seeing Makmende magazine covers, a 10,000 shilling note and lots of video remixes.

Above, we see a local television reporter come to a rapid and bad end when he has the misfortune of finding Makmende’s house… in sort of a Nairobi version of the Blair Witch project. And yes, Hitler’s upset about Makmende as well… But the best stuff actually has pretty low production values – it’s the website aggregating the sort of Makmende one-liners that shot across Twitter for a week or so after the video became popular. Sure, lots of the content here could have appeared on Chuck Norris Facts, but much of what’s there is indigenous to Kenya, and may not make sense if you’re not Kenyan.

Makmende’s so badass that he raises two philosophical questions for me. The first is, “Who gets to decide what’s a meme?”

slide21.021

Brilliant and funny lexicographer Erin McKean tells us that new worlds enter the language because people love them enough to use them. Lexicographers aren’t the bouncers at the language club; they’re anthropologists, discovering and documenting how language gets used. This is clearly how memes work as well – if people adopt it, love it and transform, it’s a meme… and what anyone else says doesn’t matter.

But it sure as hell helps if it ends up in Wikipedia. Getting Makmende into Wikipedia was one of the first things Kenyans tried to do… and getting things into Wikipedia is a lot harder than it used to be. The article was deleted a couple of times before the authors realized that they needed to make the case that Makmende was Kenya’s first major internet meme, which made it notable. It hasn’t made it into Know Your Meme yet – it was summarily deadpooled when last submitted.

My hope is that all of us who are interested in internet culture can be anthropologists, not bouncers. Yes, not everything that gets posted online is worthy of our study and amplification… but it’s worth keeping in mind that we sometimes don’t understand the unfamiliar at first and would find it intensely cool if we took a bit more time to try and understand it.

My second question is: “Who gets to play along with an internet meme?” On the one hand, there’s not much preventing you from adding some Makmende facts to the mix. On the other hand, a lot of the funny stuff already posted doesn’t make much sense unless you know the language and the culture. “Makmende hangs his clothes on a Safaricom line” only is funny if you know that Safaricom is Kenya’s largest mobile phone company and doesn’t have any traditional phone lines.

My sense is that most memes don’t cross between cultures because we don’t understand the language, don’t understand the references or weren’t paying attention to that corner of the internet to start with. Those that do tend to be funny in a way that’s independent of language. The Back Dorm Boys are pretty funny, and it’s not hard to figure out how to join in the fun.

This question parallels one that internet scholars are spending a lot of time on: Do we have one internet or many? When a country like China heavily censors their internet and encourages the growth of a parallel internet, do we hit a point where it just doesn’t make sense to talk about “the internet” anymore? Perhaps we’ve got to talk about internets, and how they interconnect. And if 340 million Chinese internet users look mostly at Chinese sites, laugh at Chinese memes, maybe it makes sense that the Chinese internet will eventually run on its own protocols, which might make it easier to censor or control. Go far enough down this road and you can imagine diverging internets, each trying to best meet the needs of their users, and no longer having a world where we readily peer into each other’s internets.

slide 26.026

If we care about a single, united internet, it is imperative that we develop, discover and disseminate internet memes that we can laugh at together. When governments censor political sites on the internet, they alienate the small portion of their populations who already identify as politically dissident – and they can make the case that they’re protecting their citizens from terrorism or incitement to violence or pornography. But when they block our access to videos of cats flushing toilets, we see them for the heavy-handed bullies that they are. The cute cats serve as cover traffic for more serious political speech – so long as chinese users want to laugh at our cat videos, we’re encouraging people to circumvent censorship and potentially encounter all sorts of stuff on YouTube.

The Chinese have developed cute cat technology. Even a cursory glance at Youku shows that the once apparently insurmountable cat gap has been thoroughly bridged. And not just simple cute cats – Youku features cats flushing toilets! And not just western style toilets – squat toilets as well! If we accept my assertion that it’s politically critical for us to LOL together, we need not just to be studying Chinese net memes – we need to develop memes we can LOL at across cultures.

When we cross cultural borders in internet memespace, we’re usually laughing at someone else. Engrish, funny though it is, is basically the act of laughing at someone for failing to speak your (absurdly complex and irregular) mother tongue. I’m deeply impressed with people like Mahir a?r? who managed to turn the experience of being laughed at by the entire internet into laughing along with the joke. It takes an unusual personality to pull this off – I’m not sure that laughing at and inviting folks to laugh along is always the best way to go.

I’d rather take the example of Matt Harding, the video game developer who spent years travelling the world, dancing badly. After the success of his first video, Matt discovered that the piece of music he’d used – “Sweet Lullaby” by Deep Forest – had a problematic history. The very short version – the French musicians behind Deep Forest used a lullaby from the Solomon Islands to record their hit song, without seeking permission from the woman who sang the song and over the explicit objections of the musicologist who recorded it. Worse, they presented it in such a way that most listeners thought it came from central Africa, not from the south Pacific.

Matt could have dismissed this story as an ugly footnote to his adventures with internet fame. To his great credit, he didn’t. Instead, he went to Auki, a small town in the Solomon Islands, to interview a nephew of Afunakwa, the woman who’d recorded the original song. It was his way of apologizing for the complex past of the song, and his way of using the weirdness of internet fame to make his world – and all those of us who’ve watched the video – a little wider.

My conclusions?
– We can go from weird to wide, as Matt did, using the strange and quirky corners of the internet to prod us into curiosity
– It’s worth asking ourselves if we’re laughing at, or laughing with. And if we don’t like the answer, perhaps we need to change our behavior.
– Anthropologists are cooler than bouncers.
– If we don’t laugh at Chinese internet memes – the first step towards getting Chinese users to laugh at global memes – the censors win.
– “Erinaceous” is a totally awesome word.


Highlights of presenting the talk included:

– Co-presenting with danah, which encouraged significantly sillier behavior than I generally engage in when on stage. I’d like to believe that I would always be willing to crouch behind a podium wearing a fluffy red hat before delivering a keynote… but it’s just not true. Add danah to the mix and it suddenly is.

– Matt Harding jumping up when his name was mentioned and dancing in the audience. I’m thankful that he came on stage after the talk to introduce himself and apologize if I freaked him out by spontaneously hugging him. I just think he’s wicked cool and deserves recognition for using the internet to show us (one facet of) how wide and wonderful the world can be.

– Meeting Mahir, who turns out to be utterly lovely in person. Yes, he immediately started filming our meeting via flip video and digital camera, and yes, he did invite me, my wife and infant son to visit him in Izmir… but I got the sense that it wasn’t in any way an act, just his particular version of friendliness. It felt more wonderful than weird.

– Talking with the guys from Know Your Meme, who are working really hard to ensure that their site is global and inclusive, and who are trying to take some pages from the Global Voices playbook, recruiting local editors who understand memes in their corners of the world. I’ve got high hopes of a Makmende article in development soon, and hope perhaps for a GV/KYM alliance where we source and research global memes.

In other words, I had a blast. Thanks to everyone involved and hope you had as much fun as I did.

March 24, 2010

Makmende’s so huge, he can’t fit in Wikipedia

Filed under: Africa,Geekery,ideas,Just for fun,xenophilia — Ethan @ 11:31 am

“After platinum, albums go Makmende”

“They once made a makmende toilet paper, but there was a problem: It wouldn’t take shit from anybody!!!”

“Makmende hangs his clothes on a safaricom line and when they dry he stores them in a flashdisk!”

If those simple truths don’t make sense to you, you’re probably not a Kenyan blogger. For the past few days, Kenya’s blogosphere and twitterers have been in thrall to the latest African superhero, and what might be Kenya’s first viral internet meme. An article in a Wall Street Journal blog today confirmed that Makmende is receiving attention beyond East Africa, demonstrating that our Kenyan friends are just as capable as any Moldovan boy band of creating internet buzz.

The video for Just a Band’s single “Ha-He” features a badass protagonist straight out of blaxploitation films. Armed with an array of freeze-frame kung fu moves, Makmende brings justice to the mean streets of a hazy, sun-drenched city that seems caught somewhere between Nairobi and 1970s LA. Tongue is firmly in cheek, as the video credits introduce characters including “Taste of Daynjah”, “Wrong Number” and bad guys “The Askyua Matha Black Militants”.

archer at Mwanamishale fills the rest of us in on the meaning of the term, Makmende:

Makmende was a term used way back in the early to mid 1990s to refer to someone who thinks hes a superhero. For example, if a boy whos watched one too many kung-fu movies on TV decides to unleash his newly acquired combat skills, he would be asked Unajidai Makmende, eh? (Who do you think you are, Makmende?) Trust me, there was a Makmende in every hood!

Given the high production values of the video, the fact that it accompanies a sweet track from Just a Band, and that the video producers evidently released a set of photoshopped magazine covers featuring Makmende as GQ’s sole “Badass of the Year”, perhaps it’s not surprising that Kenyan netizens have taken the Makmende trend to the next level. He’s got a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and a dedicated website filled with thousands of testimonies to his badassitude: “Makmende uses viagra in his eyedrops, just to look hard.”

The obvious parallel is Chuck Norris Facts, an internet meme that manifested mostly through image macros that attest to the action star’s manliness. (“Chuck Norris counted to infinity. Twice.”) For now, the Makmende phenomenon appears to be largely text-based, with Kenyans around the world connecting the events of the day to Makmende’s movements: “is the massive pour in Nairobi as a result of Makmende’s tear after the WSJ feature?”

What he doesn’t have is a Wikipedia page. I searched this morning on the English-language Wikipedia and got a page telling me that Makmende had been deleted:

* 00:37, 24 March 2010 Flyguy649 (talk | contribs) deleted “Makmende” ? (CSD G3: Pure Vandalism)
* 22:53, 23 March 2010 Malik Shabazz (talk | contribs) deleted “Makmende” ? (G12: Unambiguous copyright infringement (CSDH))
* 18:30, 23 March 2010 JoJan (talk | contribs) deleted “Makmende” ? (G1: Patent nonsense, meaningless, or incomprehensible)

Looks like multiple attempts to establish a Makmende page have been shot down. Fair enough – the inclusionist/deletionist argument that’s gripped Wikipedia centers in part on the documentation of ephemeral culture. Perhaps an English language encyclopedia doesn’t need mention of every internet meme… though pages exist for Numa Numa, the song that inspired the viral video, the guy who performed in the viral video, and so on. Perhaps if Makmende reaches the heights of internet fame that memes like Eduard Khil or Back Dorm Boys have achieved, he’ll no longer be “patent nonsense, meaningless or incomprehensible.”

Here’s an interesting puzzle for Wikipedia. Makmende may never become particularly important to English speaking users outside of Kenya. But the phenomenon’s quite important within the Kenyan internet: it’s the first meme I can remember going truly viral and inspiring a wave of participation from Kenyans around the world. I recall a conversation at 2006 Wikimania in Cambridge where (friend and GV editor) Ndesanjo Macha, a major contributor to the Swahili Wikipedia, explained that the topics covered in that wikipedia were likely to be different from those included in the English wikipedia. (More articles on east African culture, less on Pokemon, perhaps.) Indeed, the Wikipedias in Gaelic, Welsh and Plattdtsch are cultural projects as much as attempts to make key reference materials available, as most speakers of these languages are fluent in other languages that have much larger Wikipedias.

Most Wikipedians seemed to accept the idea that different languages and cultures might want to include different topics in their encyclopedias. But what happens when we share a language but not a culture? Is there a point where Makmende is sufficiently important to English-speaking Kenyans that he merits a Wikipedia page even if most English-speakers couldn’t care less? Or is there an implicit assumption that an English-language Wikipedia is designed to enshrine landmarks of shared historical and cultural importance to people who share a language?

For me, Makmende’s a reminder that the internet isn’t as small and connected as we tend to believe it is. We occasionally catch glimpses over cultural walls when we use these tools. Sometimes we respond with fascination and seek to learn more. Often, our behavior’s not as admirable. danah boyd closed her talk on Digital Visibility at Supernova this past year with an uncomfortable observation about racism in Twitter:

Think of those who complained when the Trending Topics on Twitter reflected icons of the black community during the Black Entertainment Television awards. Tweets like: “wow!! too many negros in the trending topics for me. I may be done with this whole twitter thing.” and “Did anyone see the new trending topics? I don’t think this is a very good neighborhood. Lock the car doors kids.” and “Why are all the black people on trending topics? Neyo? Beyonce? Tyra? Jamie Foxx? Is it black history month again? LOL”. These tweets should send a shiver down your spine. Perhaps these people assumed that Twitter was a white-dominant space where blacks were welcome only if they were a minority.

danah goes on to point out that not everyone reacts to encountering topics outside of their comfort sphere with shock or surprise. I found it encouraging that the Wall Street Journal saw the emergence of a Kenyan meme as a chance to explore Kenyan internet culture rather than to turn away in ignorance or disinterest. Let’s hope the next time Makmende seeks a place in Wikipedia, he’s met with a bit more curiosity and less dismissal.


Roughly six seconds after I posted this piece, Twitter users reported a new version of the Makmende article on WIkipedia. Here’s hoping this one survives summary deletion…!

February 17, 2010

Asashoryu resigns. Will sumo ever globalize?

Filed under: Sumo,xenophilia — Ethan @ 3:07 pm

Here’s a story I missed while I was out with eye surgery: Asashoryu, one of the greatest sumo wrestlers in history, has retired. And needless to say, for anyone who follows sumo: it’s not quite that simple as that. Indeed, this retirement might lead to an international falling out between Mongolia and Japan. And it provides an opportunity for reflection on the challenges the sumo world – and, perhaps, Japan as a whole – faces in an era of globalization.

Since 2003, Asashoryu – born Dolgorsurengiin Dagvadorj in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, has competed in Japanese sumo as a yokozuna, the highest achievable rank in the sport. He’s won 25 tournaments, giving him the third highest win total in the history of the sport, and in 2005, he won each of the six tournaments, an unprecedented feat. Given his success, you might think he’d be celebrated as a pillar of the sumo world. You’d be wrong.

Asashoryu’s got some strikes against him with potential Japanese fans. His rap sheet is almost as long as his list of tournament wins. His “crimes” range from violations of sumo’s strict laws of decorum, to real transgressions. Here’s how I explained his complex image in sumo the last time he trangressed – leading to an unprecedented two-tournament suspension:

Lets imagine for a moment that youre Asashoryu, the sole yokozuna in sumo for three and a half years, a near-unbeatable champion of a sport that demands not just physical prowess, but ritual stoicism and dignity. You report an injury from the most recent tournament in Nagoya, where you won your 21st Emperors cup, and return to your native Mongolia to recouperate from your injuries. Then you appear in a charity soccer game in Mongolia, apparently well enough to run around on the field. Obviously, youre a faker, a fraud, a charlatan, who deserves punishment, either by losing your rank (which would mean retirement from the sport) or by being suspended from tournaments.

Okay, now lets pretend that youre a 26 year-old Mongolian named Dolgorsuren Dagvadorj. You live and work in Japan, where people loathe you. Youre constantly accused of participating in match fixing, which seems a bit odd as you win almost all your matches shouldnt they be accusing your opponents of throwing matches and complaining about their lack of honor? Youre criticized for transgressions real and imagined being “too aggressive” and “staring too hard” at opponents in a sport that demands that you throw them to the ground or out of the ring, but also for pulling hair and for scraps with fellow wrestlers outside the ring. Your appearance at bars is the subject of constant tabloid headlines. And youve got a temper, which complicates matters.

On the other hand, youre a national hero in your native Mongolia, and unsurprisingly you do your best to spend as much time there are possible. Despite recouperating from a back injury, friends ask you to take the field with Japanese soccer star Hidetoshi Nakata at an event designed to promote soccer in Mongolia. When this causes a shitstorm in Japan, the Mongolian embassy formally apologizes on your behalf…

Unfortunately, Asa’s most recent (alleged) transgression was more serious than an ill-advised foortball match. Japanese tabloids report that Asashoryu got quite drunk in a nightclub during the January basho and beat up someone who’s been variously identified as a fellow patron, a nightclub employee, the bartender, the bar owner… Asashoryu hasn’t commented on the incident, except to say that the reports of the incident were “quite different” than what actually occured. Faced with a likely ban from the sport, he resigned and will be allowed a formal retirement ceremony… and will recieve a retirement allowance of over $1m USD.

I was pissed off at the Japan Sumo Association when they suspended Asa for playing football in Mongolia. I’m more sympathetic to their decision here… but I’m deeply saddened. I’m sad not just that I won’t get to see Asa shatter the record for tournament wins (the conspiracy theory in the Mongolian community says that JSA had to find a pretext to eject Asa before he surpassed records held by Japanese yokozuna). I’m sad that sumo and Asa couldn’t find a way to work together to allow the most talented man in the sport to continue a record-setting career.

I don’t pretend to understand all the nuances of sumo decorum, but it always seemed to me that some aspect of Asa’s uneasy status in sumo circles had to do with his strong Mongolian identity. Non-Japanese have been a part of sumo for decades, and some have been embraced by Japanese fans… though generally to the same extent that they embraced Japanese culture. Hakuho, Asashoryu’s primary rival the past few years and fellow yokozuna, is also from Mongolia, but has been far more widely accepted in Japanese sumo circles, perhaps because he’s more soft-spoken and modest, perhaps because he married a Japanese girlfriend (a decision which angered some of his Mongolian fans.)

Geoff Dean has a thoughtful essay that tries to predict the future for Asashoryu. He notes that most retired rikishi look for work in the wider world of sumo: “He can become a stable master, open a sumo restaurant, become a sumo commentator, or in some way, stay connected to the sumo world.” That’s probably not an option for Asa. Instead, he might follow Akebono, a Hawaiian-born yokozuna, into the mixed martial arts and into less-dignified corners of Japanese pop culture. Underlying Dean’s essay is the point that former non-Japanese sumo wrestlers often have a better opportunity to maintain their status and fame by staying in Japan after their sumo careers have ended. It’s hard for me to imagine Asa doing this – I think it’s more likely that he’ll find a way to stay in combat sports while being based in his homeland.

Dean observes that the most recent golden age of sumo occurred when a Japanese yokozuna – Takanohana – faced off against foreign yokozuna Akebono. This could happen again if Kotomitsuki – one of two Japanese ozeki – makes a run for promotion to join Hakuho as yokozuna. (The other Japanese ozeki – Kaio – is older than I am and will retire soon.) But the real story of sumo this past decade has been the rise of foreign rikishi into the highest ranks – Hakuho (Mongolian, yokozuna), Harumafuju (Mongolian, ozeki), Kotooshu (Bulgarian, ozeki), Baruto (Estonian, sekiwake). There are some Japanese sumo fans who aren’t excited about the idea of a Mongolian/Bulgarian rivalry at the top of the sport. I attended the April basho in Tokyo a few years back and was stunned to see fans handing out colorful photos emblazoned with the image of Japanese ozeki Chiyotaikai… but no one handing out anything featuring the higher-ranked yokozuna, Asashoryu.

Writing in Forbes, Tim Kelly sees sumo’s resistance to accepting Asashoryu and other foreign competitors as a symptom of larger problems associated with a closed society: “Japan, like sumo, is closed, preferring to persevere through depopulation and economic stagnation rather than open its borders to the stimulus offered by opportunity-hungry foreigners. What they choose to ignore is that Japan is running out of money, people and ideas.” He makes that case that Japan needs to increase immigration to spur the Japanese economy and cultivate creativity, and suggests a good first step would be to figure out how to get used to controversial outsiders like Asa, rather than expelling him.

I’m not able to make sweeping generalizations about the Japanese economy or offer as strong a prescription as Kelly does for Japanese society. I will say that I’ve been very proud as a Red Sox fan of the way my team and its fanbase have embraced our two Japanese stars, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima. Shortly after the Sox paid an unbelievable sum of money to negotiate with Matsuzaka, local sportswriters started referring to the new star as “Dice-K”, a nickname designed to help Boston fans correctly pronounce the unfamiliar Japanese name. (I’d love to figure out whether the team started this practice, or whether a clever sportwriter came up with it.) The Red Sox played regular season games in Japan in 2008, and there’s now a third Japanese pitcher – Junichi Tazawa – on the Sox roster. It’s routine to see Sox fans in Fenway sporting Matsuzaka shirts in Fenway with the pitcher’s name written in Hiragana.

Things could have gotten very ugly for Matsuzaka in Boston this past year. He had a lousy season, in part because he showed up for spring training nursing injuries from the World Baseball Classic, where he’d represented Japan and won the MVP trophy (and beat the US in the semifinal round.) Boston was pretty sympathetic, actually – I heard more commentary about the danger of the Baseball Classic for all MLB players than I did specific criticism of Dice-K.

I don’t mean to offer a facile comparison between Boston (which has its own complex history of racism and xenophobia to live down) and Japan and suggest that one’s open and the other closed. What I’ll say instead is that baseball’s become a global sport by embracing players from around the world at its highest level, the MLB. (And not just players – Ecuadorian radio personality Jaime Jarrin is a genuine celebrity in LA as the Spanish-language radio voice of the LA Dodgers.) Sumo could become a global sport by similarly embracing and celebrating this new wave of Asian and European talent. Instead, they’ve banned a pair of Russian wrestlers for alleged drug use and hounded the most talented man in a generation out of the sport. Not a great moment for sumo cosmopolitanism.

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress