other threads (collected entries on recurrent themes)
an experimental high school civics class
Iraq and democratic theory
rethinking the left
advocacy for civic education
deliberative democracy work
moral philosophy

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Monday, January 20, 2003

[For] First Amendment lawyers, ... the Internet is primarily interesting as a venue for cheap speech. It's extremely expensive to communicate through media like print or television, but it's cheap to operate a Website or to send out bulk emails. Thus the Internet is supposed to be very good for freedom of speech. I find myself unpersuaded. The more people communicate on the Internet, the more they have to split the available audience, to the point that the average online "speaker" (that's me) probably talks to two or three people. Being able to communicate to such a small number is no great advance over the olden days, when you could put up a poster. Also, "cheap speech" often turns into the blather of chat rooms. That is because people abuse common spaces by dumping ill-informed or uncivil speech into them. So I have realized that I am interested in the possibilities of the Internet for "affordable speech," not "cheap speech." Given the new digital technology, we can now create such goods as streaming videos, interactive online maps, local newspapers, and structured deliberations. These goods cost thousands of dollars instead of hundreds of thousands. The result is a great advance for the First Amendment, as many more people can participate in creating things of value. However, "affordable speech" is not free—indeed, it's out of the reach of most community groups and non-profits. Which is why I am so interested in creating institutional support for public uses of the Internet.

Friday, February 21

In between phone calls on practical issues, I worked on my paper concerning the reliability of medical information on the Web. As a little experiment, I tried searching for "mononucleosis" on Google. (MEDLINEplus, the ambitious federal portal, notes that "mononucleosis" is one of the most common search terms on its site. Since the disease is not serious but lacks a cure, some reasonable patients and parents may want to diagnose it and treat the symptoms on their own.)

I noticed a few things:

  • First, MEDLINEplus does not appear very prominently among the search results. Sites with much less funding and institutional support, and with much less detailed information, are at least as prominent on the Web. Indeed, a Hungarian student who once had mononucleosis and has written 700 words on the subject is almost as prominent as MEDLINEplus, which is a major product of a federal agency with a $250 million annual budget.
  • Second, it is difficult to make an accurate diagnosis of mononucleosis using the Internet, because its symptoms vary and resemble the symptoms of other diseases (including HIV/AIDS). There is a fairly reliable blood test that only a physician can conduct. Therefore, many people who suspect that they have mononucleosis will learn from the Web that they may be right, but their diagnosis must be confirmed by a physician. The value of using the Internet in this case is somewhat limited.
  • Third, you are more likely to find yourself using MEDLINEplus if you know that you are interested in "mononucleosis" (a scientific term), rather than if you only know that you have fever, headache, swollen glands, tiredness, and malaise (the main symptoms of the disease). If you look for symptoms, most of the sites you find with Google will be irrelevant or unreliable.
  • Fourth, the apparent reliability of prominent sites that describe mononucleosis differ widely, but the main information that they offer is similar (with the exception of the material on homeopathy that appears in some of the non-governmental sites.) Even the 700-word site constructed by a Hungarian student offers fundamentally the same message as MEDLINEplus—on this particular topic.

Monday, March 10

I'm beginning to think about my presentation at the American Society for Public Administration conference next Monday. (Click for the practical details.) My title is "Local Governments and Independent Civic Websites." I submitted the following abstract: "Communities benefit when they have strong, broad-based, active, civic organizations. Today, there is a need for new civic organizations or networks that are devoted to producing public goods for distribution on the Internet: things like searchable databases of local assets, interactive digital maps, structured forums for informed public deliberation, alternative local news sources, and art and history projects. These goods are not widely available, because businesses have not learned how to make money from them, and they are too expensive to be produced by individual citizens. However, for a reasonable price, local governments can support such work without compromising its independence."

Monday, March 17

I gave a paper today at the American Society for Public Administration's Annual Conference, arguing that local governments should support independent voluntary associations in producing elaborate websites with databases, interactive maps, searchable archives, researched and edited articles, structured deliberation forums, and streaming videos. I believe that local governments can and should help in some of these ways:

  • Providing modest grants and technical assistance. Even a total pool of grant money on the order of $100,000 in a county of (say) one million people would catalyze a lot of good work
  • Publicizing the availability of relevant information that can be put online in enhanced and creative forms—information such as GIS mapping data, historical records, and photographs.
  • Regulating local Internet service providers (ISP's), especially cable companies, to ensure that they do not provide services that discriminate against nonprofits or against people who want to create their own websites. If an ISP were to block you from visiting a particular site, you would switch carriers (as long as there was a choice). But ISPs can discriminate more subtly by speeding up content from certain favored commercial sites and slowing down other sites, by making certain portals and search engines the defaults for their users, by making it artificially slow to transmit data, etc.
  • Creating state-of-the-art local information networks (especially wireless ones) that provide cheap access and do not discriminate on the basis of the type of content transmitted.

Tuesday, April 15

Some people regard the telephone network as a "commons," because the telephone companies have been regulated as "common carriers" by the FCC. Today, the Commission simply defines "common carrier" as "the term used to describe a telephone company." But the underlying idea (which the FCC may have forgotten in this deregulatory era) would apply just as well to railway lines or postal services as to AT&T. A true common carrier agrees to move any good, message, or person (depending on the medium) from anywhere in its system to anywhere else for a price that depends only on factors that affect its own costs, e.g., distance and weight or duration. A common carrier may not discriminate on the basis of the content of the message or the identity of the customer. For example, a telephone company may not refuse to carry a phone call because of the speakers' political views, nor may it charge different fees for different kinds of speech. A common carrier railroad would have to carry any passenger from any point A to any point B.

To preserve the common carrier ideal, regulations traditionally prevented owners of communications systems from providing other services. This was because firms that provided "content" as well as the "conduit" would tend to discriminate in favor of their own services. For example, if the telephone company provided 1-900 services, then it would be tempted to give its own calls preferential treatment. For similar reasons, cable-TV providers might give their own channels favored treatment, if they were allowed to offer programming.

A common carrier telecommunications system is an important base for the Internet, because it allows digital messages to be transmitted regardless of their content, thus keeping the Internet uncensored and flexible. But is a common carrier system a commons? We experience a classic commons as collective property or as no one's property—as "free." I do not think that we view telephone lines as common property. If they resemble a commons, it is for a combination of three reasons: (1) the common carrier rules; (2) the very low marginal cost of each minute of use, at least for local calls; and (3) government programs that have brought telephones into most homes, even in rural and poor urban neighborhoods. If any of these three conditions were missing, then the telephone system would not feel like a commons. This is a significant conclusion because it suggests that three types of regulations are necessary preconditions of the Internet as we know it.

Thursday, April 17

Here's a troubling technological development, pointed out by Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy. A company called Ellacoya provides "network traffic control" software and hardware that allows Internet Service Providers (ISP) to track their own customers closely and to "enforce a very large number of policies" regarding Internet use. The technology can, for example, limit traffic from particular sites or categories of sites to a certain speed, or block connections altogether to particular sites, or block connections at certain times of the day for certain customers. The great danger is that ISPs can now speed up connections to Websites that have paid them for special treatment, while subtly slowing down other sites. ISPs will certainly have the incentive to discriminate in this way if they are owned by a major content provider, such as Microsoft or AOL Time Warner.

This means that if your favorite low-budget nonprofit seems to have a slow Website, your ISP may actually be responsible. Also, ISPs may slow down users who want to create and post material, rather than merely consume it. (Ellacoya says: "Operators can easily discover their top talkers and then set up restricted bandwidth pools for specific applications and/or user groups during peak hours.") This kind of discrimination will be hard to detect, so customers will not switch their ISPs to avoid it. Yet it strikes at one of the fundamental principles of the Internet. You should be able to share any kind of (legal) material with anyone without an intermediary throwing obstacles in your path. Whereas overt obstacles are easily detected and can often by bypassed, subtle discrimination poses a serious danger.

Friday, April 18

I'm off to California, so this blog may have to pause until April 23. I'm going to Berkeley to give a talk at the Center for the Study of Law and Society (co-sponsored by the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology). My title is "Building the Electronic Commons," and I will be discussing ideas that I have described elsewhere on this Website, as well as some new thoughts. This is my abstract:

Legal theorists like Lawrence Lessig, Yochai Benkler, and James Boyle have defended various versions of a "commons" theory of cyberspace. They argue for reforms that would considerably reduce property rights, thereby returning the Internet to its orginal state of benign anarchy while enhancing innovation and civil liberties online. I argue that this vision is attractive but flawed. It is politically naive, since majorities of voters and organized special interests have incentives to undermine such an online commons. Also, this vision promotes innovation and negative liberty to the exclusion of other values, including democratic ones. However, there is another understanding of the "commons" that is just as venerable and supported by rigorous theory. This is the notion of a commons as a voluntary nonprofit association (or network of such associations), governed by rules. I will discuss politically realistic ways to enhance the role of such associations in cyberspace.

The talk is scheduled for Monday from 12:30-1:45. Details here.

Friday, May 8

I have just published a new article on "information privacy." "Information Technology and the Social Construction of Information Privacy: Comment," Journal of Accounting and Public Policy Volume 22, Issue 3, May-June 2003, Pages 281-285)

The abstract says:

Privacy is not merely "socially constructed"; it is a good thing. We should defend privacy because it supports freedom, property rights, informed consent, personality development, happiness, equality of power, an appropriate separation of society into multiple zones, and rights of association, while helping to prevent discrimination and defamation. Accountants have a professional responsibility to help protect information privacy.

This short, commissioned piece begins with some comments about the methodology of another article in the same journal; these remarks are not very interesting for general readers. I think the main value of my piece (if it is useful at all) is that it lists the goods and rights that we can enhance by protecting online privacy. None of the items on my list is original, but they are all together in one place.

Tuesday, May 27

Microsoft is giving away free software to nonprofits, and critics charge that this is a deliberate plot to undermine open-source alternatives that were gaining ground in the nonprofit sector. I'll have to leave it to economists to decide whether Microsoft's strategy is good or bad for nonprofit organizations in strictly economic terms. (Economists might also ask whether it is a good deal for taxpayers to let Microsoft take a tax deduction for donating Windows, each copy of which actually costs the company nothing). Likewise, I'll have to defer to antitrust lawyers about whether this strategy violates laws against anti-competitive pricing. My concern is different from either of these. It may be that open-source software is good for civil society because it promotes cooperation in the writing and improving of the code; diversity (since open-source products can be tailored for various purposes and produced by many actors); and creativity by a wide range of individuals and groups. Whether open-source products such as Linux actually have these effects is an empirical matter than needs to be assessed. I suspect, however, that nonprofits like to use open-source products for these reasons and not merely to save money. If that is true, then Microsoft's donation is insidious.

Tuesday, June 3

My good friends at the Center for Media Education sent me a list of youth-led civic projects that use the Internet. Here are a few great examples from their list:

  • Teen Consumer Scrapbook (Sponsored by the Washington State Attorney General's Office)
  • Flint Profiles ("By teaching information access and computer technology as tools for change, this project aims to empower high school students to succeed as decision makers who influence community leaders to respond to their ideas for change. Through this project, young activists will learn to put their passion into action.")
  • Harlem Live (Mission: "To empower a diverse group of youth towards leadership using experience and exposure to media and technology. ... HarlemLive is award winning, critically acclaimed web magazine produced by teens from throughout New York City".)
  • Street Level ("Street-Level Youth Media educates Chicago's inner-city youth in media
    arts and emerging technologies for use in self-expression communication, and social change.")
  • Wire Tap ("WireTap is the independent information source by and for socially conscious youth. We showcase investigative news articles, personal essays and opinions, artwork and activism resources that challenge stereotypes, inspire creativity, foster dialogue and give young people a voice in the media.")

Wednesday, June 4

For people interested in the information commons, here are two sites worth visiting:

  • Lawrence Lessig is circulating a petition asking Congress to pass a "Public Domain Enhancement Act. This statute would require American copyright owners to pay a very low fee (for example, $1) fifty years after a copyrighted work was published. If the owner pays the fee, the copyright will continue for whatever duration Congress sets. But if the copyright is not worth even $1 to the owner, then we believe the work should pass into the public domain."
  • The American Library Association has a new "commons-blog," devoted to issues of intellectual property. The ALA is a powerful resource for civic work and a supporter of the public domain. Librarians run important civic institutions in communities and schools; they are custodians of intellectual property that people can use for free; and they promote deliberation. The ALA has what the whole public-interest movement most desperately needs: an active, knowledgeable, grassroots base. Leaders of the ALA, such as Nancy Kranich, a recent President whom I know, are aware of their civic role.

Monday, June 9

The American Library Association's commons-blog has a nice mention of The Prince George's Information Commons.

I see our local work on this experimental "information commons" as an effort to fill an important gap. The national public interest groups that work on media issues use a model pioneered around 1970 by Ralph Nader and John Gardner (founders of Public Citizen and Common Cause). Today, these groups perform extremely important functions in tracking complex federal policies and lobbying and litigating on behalf of values that would otherwise be unrepresented in Washington. However (with the exception of the ALA and a few other groups), they lack a grassroots base. In part, this is because their issues are so complex that most people cannot, and will not, keep up. In part, it is because the original Nader/Gardner model depended on a large population of active citizens who were prone to join groups, to follow and discuss issues, and to make contributions. Public Citizen and Common Cause were born at the demographic peak of what Robert Putnam calls "the long civic generation." Now that people are generally less likely to follow the news and to join groups, the "public-interest community" in Washington lacks a base. So our strategy is to start building independent (that is, non-partisan, non-profit, and non-governmental) groups at the community level—as places where people can develop social ties and learn to use the complex new media for public purposes. I believe that we should never try to push these groups to take any particular political positions. Even after people start using the Internet for public purposes, they may still not be upset (as I am) about corporate monopolies or a lack of diversity in the mass media. They may have other concerns. But they will be active, participatory, experienced, experimental, and independent; and so they will provide the missing voice.

Wednesday, June 11

The second day of Deliberative Democracy Consortium meetings leaves me with little energy for composing a blog. So I'll reference two valuable items connected to the commons idea:

  1. There is an effort underway to reverse the recent FCC decision to allow companies to own almost unlimited numbers of media outlets in each community. The bill to do this is S. 1046. See this web page from Common Cause for action steps.
  2. Paul Resnick, a professor at the University of Michigan's School of Information, is really one of the intellectual parents of our local work on the Prince George's Information Commons. He and Harry Boyte wrote an important paper arguing that land-grant universities should revive their extension role for the 21st century by creating a network of community groups that would use the Internet for local civic purposes. We think of the Prince George's project as a pilot for this idea. Paul has now put the original, inspirational White Paper on his website, which is full of other relevant material.

Friday, July 4

Apparently, Gov. Howard Dean's extraordinary fundraising success is due to the Internet. In a broadcast email, Mike Weiksner, Chairman of e-thePeople, writes, "It started out last December when a small cabal of online pundits started posting supportive commentary about a relatively unknown candidate, Dr. Howard Dean. These pundits posted their commentary on 'blogs'." The next step was Dean's launch of a campaign website, which described his positions and requested donations. "Then, www.meetup.com got involved. Meetup.com hosts informal get-togethers for like-minded individuals, and offered to help Dean to link supporters together." Finally, MoveOn held its unofficial online Democratic "primary," which Dean won. Mainly as a result of these events, he is first in fundraising, having raised $10.1 million in 2003. He is a leading candidate instead of a protest vote.

Whenever someone scores a political success by using an unconventional tactic, it is natural to ask whether the change will last and whether it will benefit or harm the political system overall. But it is important not to generalize hastily from the first candidate who uses the new methods. For instance, an insurgent leftist candidate could invent a tactic that is ultimately used most effectively by mainstream conservatives. Furthermore, novel tactics may play out very differently once they've become routine. Thus I think we should be cautious about predicting the effects of a new tactic or technology on the political system over the long haul. But I'll risk some guesses:

  • Campaigns that successfully exploit peer-to-peer networks and advanced technology will have highly educated, youthful, reasonably affluent constituencies. I do not know the demographics of Dean supporters, but it stands to reason that young urban techies would gravitate to a politician who is socially liberal, fiscally conservative, anti-war, and conspicuously educated. ("Dr. Dean," the newspapers call him.) It wasn't Al Sharpton who won the "blog primary."
  • If these tactics work, they will benefit independent candidates who have little or no institutional base but who take unconventional positions—to the disadvantage of organized movements such as unions, churches, and parties. Dean is a quirky guy from a small and quirky state; his success contrasts starkly with the troubles now facing Rep. Dick Gephardt, an urban midwesterner who gradually built support in unions, his state and national party, and Congress. As a general matter, I think that average people (those without special skills or capital) desperately need such organized institutions to represent them. Therefore, it may not be a good thing if someone like Howard Dean can easily beat someone like Dick Gephardt by using new technologies. (And I say this as someone who would probably vote for Dean over Gephardt on the issues.)
  • These tactics will work best in multi-person competitions with small numbers of voters. In such races, a candidate can stake out an unusual position, capture a small but energetic constituency, and come in first. In contrast, two-person races, especially at the national level, require mass mobilization. Blogs and peer-to-peer networks don't have the necessary reach. Imagine that Dean won the Democratic nomination on the strength of the Internet. I believe he would be crushed by George Bush, who has a party and other organized political movements behind him. In fact, Bush has raised three times more than Dean this year, relying on just a few fundraisers. One could argue that blogs and peer-to-peer networks will grow until they are truly mass phenomena. I doubt it. Their growth will be limited by shortages of education, background knowledge, and motivation.

Monday, August 4

I have lost the reference, but sometime within the last 72 hours, I read a quote by an official of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the agency that helped launch the Internet and recently got into trouble for creating a "futures market" in terrorism. This official bemoaned the stupidity of his laptop, which doesn't know what he wants it to do; he called for much more public investment in artificial intelligence (AI).

I have an interesting colleague in computer science, Ben Shneiderman, who strongly criticizes AI research. His argument is not that the machines will take over the world and make us do their will. Rather, he argues that AI tends to make machines less useful, because they become unpredictable. When, for example, Microsoft Word tries to anticipate my desires by suddenly numbering or bulleting my paragraphs, that can be convenient—but it can also be a big nuisance. Shneiderman argues that computers are best understood as tools; and a good tool is easy to understand and highly predictable. It lets us do what we want. All the revolutionary computer technologies have been very tool-like, with no AI features. (Think of email, word processing, and spreadsheets.) Meanwhile, untold billions of dollars have been poured into AI, with very modest practical payoffs.

Tuesday, August 5

The latest technological phenomenon to get the attention of the New York Times is "mobbing." An announcement spreads around blogs, listservs, and bulletin boards: everyone is supposed to show up at a particular time and place to do some particular, but random, thing, like asking a Macy's sales clerk for a "love rug" or shouting "Yes, Yes!" Thanks to the viral nature of the Internet, the idea spreads and people actually show up.

Are smart mobs "The Next Social Revolution?" as Howard Rheingold is arguing? They certainly fit the current ideal for social organizations: completely decentralized, with
minimal costs of entry and exit, no hierarchy, and no rules. I have absorbed so much conventional social theory that I'm very skeptical about this ideal. I assume that the creation of public goods is difficult and requires a solution to the classic free-rider problem (namely: people won't contribute much of value if the good is enjoyed by everyone else). Destroying stuff is much easier. Therefore, I would guess that the new phenomenon of "smart mobs" will be used much more effectively to destroy than to create. People may show up to shout "yes, yes!" (which is funny and costs nothing), but they won't use "smart mob" methods for real constructive action. I also assume that one of the trickiest parts of social organization is finding ways to make actors appropriately accountable. I don't see how a smart mob can be forced to answer for its behavior. However, all this could be wrong. (I'm very "twentieth century.")

Tuesday, August 26

If you compare a newspaper website to a conventional newspaper page, I think the results are a little surprising. We're used to seeing the Internet as a great expansion of possibilities, compared to print. But news websites only display about 15 words on each line, plus advertising and navigation bars. That means that a reader must essentially scroll down one vertical column of text at a time. A traditional sheet of newsprint, by contrast, is very wide and can contain an elaborate array of stories (some linked together), diagrams, and photographs. The reader can spread out a newspaper, scan it quickly, and select what to read and in what order.

As a result, news sites are perhaps more like broadcast programs than they are like conventional newspapers. A broadcaster can only transmit one stream of content at a time. There is always a danger that listeners will switch channels if they don't like what they see and/or hear. Thus broadcasters feel pressure to cater to as large an audience as possible with each of their programs. In contrast, a traditional newspaper is a diverse bundle of material, which readers can navigate and read selectively. The more diversity of content, the better, at least to a point. One would think that Internet sources would be more interactive and diverse than newspapers, not less so. But I think that the width of our current screens may actually make websites more like broadcast channels. They have to emphasize a few headline stories and try to keep their visitors from "clicking" away to other sites.

Of course, there are other differences between newspapers and news websites. (To name just a few: the lack of any final edition on websites; visitors' ability to search current and archived editions; and the prevalence of links to sites beyond the newspaper's control.) Still, the difference in width deserves mention.

Monday, Sept. 8

A well-known experiment, run by Iowa Electronic Markets, allows traders to place bets on the outcome of political elections, including the current California governor's race. According to a paper by Joyce Berg and others, the Iowa Political Market has outperformed polls in predicting 9 out of 15 elections. Its average error in predicting election results is about 1.5%, compared to about 2% for an average poll. In some past elections, the Market avoided major errors that marred all the major national surveys, whereas it has never made a gross mistake itself. The apparently uncanny ability of the Iowa Electronic Market to predict the future was one of the reasons that the Defense Department recently floated the grisly idea of a futures market in terrorism.

I'm struggling to understand the theoretical explanation for this phenomenon. I realize that markets efficiently aggegrate the knowledge of investors (who must try to make honest predictions, since their money is on the line). But where do the investors in a political futures market get their knowledge? They cannot simply ask themselves how they intend to vote. As Berg et al. note, traders are "not a representative sample of likely voters; they are overwhelmingly male, well-educated, high income, and young" (p. 2). Some are not even US residents. Thus their own choices in the real election, assuming they vote at all, will be very different from those of the American people. Yet they seem to be able to predict the actual result more accurately than a random-digit telephone poll.

One clue is that a relatively small number of "marginal traders" drive the market; they make many more trades than other people and are less prone to sticking with an unlikely bet out of loyalty. I would guess that these "marginal traders" are political junkies: people who have no sentimental attachment to any of the candidates but love to prognosticate about elections. We can assume that they have seen all the polls—but that still doesn't explain how they outperform surveys on average. Could it be that they instinctively recognize a consistent error in polling, and adjust accordingly? For example, maybe polls tend to pick the real winner but predict a larger margin of victory than actually occurs. (Races tend to "tighten" right at the end.) Or maybe polls tend to make inflated predictions for the Democrats' share of the vote, because they count too many low-income people as "likely voters." It's also possible that the marginal traders rely on one or two polls that are better than the average. (Then we would find that the market outperformed polls in general, but was no more accurate than the best of the polls.)

These are hypotheses backed with no evidence. But if one of them turns out to be true, then we don't need a market to improve on surveys. We just need to make the same adjustment to poll results that the marginal traders (a.k.a., the political junkies) are making. Likewise, we would not benefit from a futures market in terrorism, but we should strive to understand how the best informed and least sentimental observers of terrorism make their predictions.

Tuesday, Sept. 9

I was in New York City today, at the offices of the AOL Time Warner Foundation, discussing evaluation with people who work in the field of "youth media and technology." This means people who help adolescents to produce videos, websites, radio broadcasts, and magazines for the benefit of their communities. I won't attempt to summarize the other participants' views (or even list who was present), because they weren't warned that they might be "blogged."

Speaking for myself: I think it is appropriate for people who are running relatively low-budget programs to assess themselves by making internal comparisons. For example, they can compare their own performance in 2004 with that in 2003, and if they are making progress, they can declare success. Or they can compare one of their own programs with another.

Such evaluations will not answer questions like: Is work with youth media effective? Or, What are its outcomes? To answer these questions, you have to compare one or more youth media projects with something else (such as athletics or conventional arts programs) or with no intervention at all. I would call this approach "research," as opposed to mere "assessment." Research is crucial in any field that wants to expand, find new funders, and gain acceptance in schools. But it is also difficult, expensive, and a diversion from the day-to-day goals of a service organization. That's because solid research requires random assignment of adolescents to the program or to an alternative, or at least elaborate statistical controls that mimic random assignment. And elaborate statistical analysis requires lots of expensive data-collection. In short, the field of youth media and technology would benefit from research; but for each practitioner, the costs and obstacles of doing the research are too great.

Thursday, Sept. 18

Right now, Hurricane Isabel is howling around us and most work has ceased. The University has taken its server down, blessedly cutting off my email. Yesterday afternoon, when the skies were still clear, I met with Marty Kearns of Green Media Toolshed, who is full of fascinating ideas about how the Internet and other distributed technologies (including billboards and buttons) can be used for political activism. Meanwhile, I was reading reviews of Bruce Bimber and Richard Davis' new book, Campaigning Online: The Internet in U.S. Elections. Apparently, they argue that the Internet is effective for mobilizing strongly committed partisans, but it does not increase net participation in politics and elections. This is consistent with CIRCLE research on young people, and also with my predictions in a 2002 essay on the Internet and politics.

Marty Kearns makes me optimistic about the political power of digital technologies and their value for progressive organizations. But I also worry about the chief barrier to participation. It's not the digital divide, or technological literacy, or the power of major media companies to constrain the ways that the Internet is used. It's rather the lack of motivation to participate politically—the lack of identity as citizens—among many marginalized people. In the past, people developed that kind of identity and motivation by enrolling in disciplined organizations with strong cultures: unions, political parties, religious denominations. I'm not convinced that we've found replacements for such organizations in the digital age.

Wednesday, October 1

I buy the argument in Cass Sunstein's book, Republic.com. Sunstein predicts that the Internet allows people to choose news and opinion that already interests them, while filtering out any views and facts that they find uncomfortable. As a result, the population splits into small communities of like-minded people who reinforce their shared views. Another result is a widening gap between those who have a lot of interest in public issues and those who are not interested. Motivated citizens benefit from all the news and opinion online. Unmotivated ones can ignore the broader world in a way that was more difficult back when they relied on TV for entertainment and the newspaper for want ads and crossword puzzles. Whether they liked it or not, they used to see news on television and on the front page of the newspaper.

Sunstein's book was mostly based on his theory of democracy and some experimental evidence about deliberation in narrow groups. His empirical evidence about the Internet was relatively weak. Thus many reviewers criticized him and offered anecdotes about the Web as a place for diverse public deliberations. Even Sunstein seemed to back off his own claims in the face of these criticisms. Yet I never thought he was proved wrong.

If Sunstein were right, then those who start off uninterested in politics would be less informed and therefore less likely to participate once they gain Internet access. Now a scholar named Markus Prior shows that Internet access correlates with a lower probability of voting among people who start with a low interest in the news. (In other words, these people are more likely to vote if they don't have net access.) The article is entitled "Liberated Viewers, Polarized Voters: The Implications of Increased Media Choice for Democratic Politics," and it's in the Good Society.

Friday, Oct. 10

I have just posted two new articles about the idea of a "commons." Both are defenses of a particular position, which I would summarize as follows: The Internet should be an open arena for creators to make and give away digital material. That is how the Net was born; but this commons ideal is now under serious threat from government censorship and especially from corporate control of the Internet's "architecture" and intellectual property. So far, my argument is completely indebted to work by Lawrence Lessig, James Boyle, David Bollier, and Yochai Benkler, among others. I add the view that we won't ever succeed in protecting the commons through legislation, court decisions, or clever software that circumvents corporate or state control. We need formal associations of citizens who have personal experience with the new digital media and commitment to using it for civic purposes. In "Building the E-Commons," The Good Society, vol. 11, no. 3 (2002), pp. 1-9, I discuss one such association and then move to a general argument for the "associational commons" as our ideal. In "A Movement for the Commons?" The Responsive Community, vol. 13, no. 4 (Fall 2003), pp. 28-39, I start with the legal battle over intellectual property, and again conclude that we need citizens' associations to protect and enrich the commons.

Tuesday, December 9

There's a standard version of the history of the Internet that traces it back to ARPA (the Advanced Research Projects Agency) in the 1960s. ARPA developed a way for computers to exchange information in small packets, so that two computers would not need to open a permanent and exclusive channel (such as a standard phone connection) in order to remain constantly in touch. Instead, they would send messages in small chunks that could be routed through whatever computers happened to be online until they reached their destination. ARPA was a military outfit (it soon became DARPA; the "D" stands for "Defense"), and its motive was to create a new communications network that could withstand massive disruption during wartime. The DARPA system improved, and similar processes developed separately in the academic world. Under the auspices of the National Science Foundation, these networks were brought together (starting with a process for sharing email). After a while, the NSF named this network of networks the Internet, and so we entered the current era.

This is all true and important, but it's like explaining the origins of a human being by listing all of her direct ancestors who happen to share her last name: her father, her paternal grandfather, and so on back. Lots of other ancestors have also contributed their genes and nurture, although their names are harder to retrieve. Similarly, if you look around today's World Wide Web, you'll see numerous important features that did not arise from ARPA, DARPA, or the NSF.  

Two quick examples: 1) I use online library catalogues all the time, and they are a significant part of the Internet. Their genealogy begins with handwritten book catalogues (which, for all I know, are as old as ancient Alexandria), and then moves to computerized databases in major research libraries, which became accessible via modem at least 25 years ago, which then became accessible by telnet, and which are now usually searchable through a Web browser.

2) Elaborate multiplayer games like MUDs and MOOs are another part of today's net. I think their ancestors include: wargames with lead figures in the era of H.G. Wells; role-playing games after World War II; role-playing games played by correspondence, which arose roughly at the same time as computerized single-player wargames; networked computerized wargames; and finally multiplayer games on the Web.

Thursday, January 15

We released a survey today that contains a lot of data about young people--their civic and political behavior and attitudes, and specifically their reaction to the ways political campaigns are using the Internet.

Campaigns are effectively using the Internet to reach young people, and will continue to do so. But is this because young people are computer-savvy and demand Internet based campaigns? Or is it because campaigns see advantages to a cheap medium that can reach and expand their base (more cost-effectively than broadcasts and mass mailings)? Overall, our data show that young people are not particularly favorable toward new, online campaigns techniques. They favor some approaches but oppose others.

Despite a general lack of enthusiasm for many online campaign techniques, however, there are some pools of young voters who do like the new technologies. For example, those college students and college graduates who are liberal and concerned about the War in Iraq are overwhelmingly aware of blogs and favor their use in campaigns by 68%-32%. This group also likes “banner adds”and weekly email updates, which are unpopular among youth in general.

The graph shows the percentage who like each campaign technique, minus those who don't like it or call it a "turn-off." We distinguish liberal college students who are concerned about the war (blue bars) from other youth (red).

These findings put the Dean phenomenon in context. The demographic group that most likes his campaign themes is also most favorable toward electronic campaigning. It is not at all clear that blogs and Meetup events would work nearly as well for other candidates. Given that strong partisans and well-educated youth are most enthusiastic about the new technologies in politics, the Internet looks like a means to organize core voters, not a way to expand the franchise

January 27

I've been asked to write an article on how young political activists use the Internet. After an introduction about the political potential of the "commons," I turn to various types of online youth activity. One short section concerns online political organizations. Comments would be welcome. I'm planning to say:

Political, ideological, and civic organizations have formed largely or entirely online, representing virtually all ideologies, identities, and agendas. Their organizational structures also vary greatly, but compared to offline groups, they are more likely to have anonymous or pseudonymous members.

Anonymity has the advantage of allowing candor, which is especially beneficial for members of stigmatized groups (such as the only gay adolescent in a small community). It also allows people to experiment with novel identities. However, anonymity may have the disadvantage of making relationships relatively superficial and may permit behavior that is disruptive to the group itself. If members can adopt fictitious identities, then they can change their identities as soon as anyone threatens to expel or socially ostracize them.

Compared to offline groups, online ones tend to be easier to “exit” but harder to change by exercising “voice” (Hirschman), because there is no method of democratic decision-making that one can influence. Because exit is easy, groups tend not to discipline their own members by demanding contributions or particular forms of behavior in return for membership. Again compared to offline groups, online ones tend to be “thin” rather than “thick” (Bimber, p. 148). In a classic “thick” group, such as a family and ethnic group, members are committed to the survival and flourishing of the collectivity; but its purposes are changeable and subject to debate. In a “thin” group, members enter having some purpose, and view membership as instrumental to that goal. Although many online groups are “thin,” unstructured, and easy to exit, this is not true of massive, multiplayer games, whose participants invest considerable time in developing fictional characters. Often, they become highly committed to the flourishing of the game community as an end in itself. However, most games are not political.

Political or civic groups more typically allow members to visit a website, contribute money, and/or elect to receive email messages. A prominent example is MoveOn.org, a liberal organization in the United States that claims 2.3 million members as of January 2004. MoveOn was formed to oppose the impeachment of President Clinton, but now tackles issues that its members choose by voting. It has raised and spent millions of dollars to influence US policy. No information is available about the median age of MoveOn members or staff, but it has been described as an “an inter-generational grouping heavily peopled by young voters, something that most political constituencies lack” (Schechter, 2004).

January 29

here's a lively discussion of "cyberbalkanization" on the Deliberative Democracy Consortium's blog. The discussion was prompted by a New York Times article last Sunday that claimed that people use the Internet to sort themselves into small, homogeneous groups and to filter out views that don't interest or please them. I've pasted my comment below, but I recommend the full discussion:

For my money, the best theoretical account of cyberbalkanization is still a 1996 paper by Marshall van Alstyne and Erik Brynjolfsson. They predict that the Internet will help people who are so inclined to increase the range and diversity of their information and contacts. They also predict that the Internet will allow people to "filter" out unwelcome ideas or contacts and to form narrow, exclusive groups. So the technology will not determine the outcome; people's motives will. And clearly, people have various motives. Some prefer diverse ideas and serendipitous encounters; others want to shun people who are different and simply confirm their own prejudices.

I am fairly pessimistic about the cyberbalkanization problem, not because of the technology, but because of cultural trends in the US. Niche marketing has become highly sophisticated and has divided us into small groups. There's more money to be made through niche programs than by creating diverse forums for discussion. Meanwhile, people have developed consumerist attitudes towards news, looking for "news products" that are tailored to their private needs. And broad-based organizations have mostly shrunk since the 1950s. In this context, the Internet looks like a means to more balkanization. In a different context, such as contemporary Saudi Arabia, it may have a much more positive impact.

February 13

I'm writing a paper (for a conference organized by Lin Ostrom) that connects my two main preoccupations: the Internet as a commons, and youth civic development. Actually, I believe this link is very important. A "commons" is a public asset. It requires voluntary contributions, and it can be ruined by pollution or exploitation. Therefore, it depends on people who display trust, reciprocity, long time-horizons, optimism about the possibilities of voluntary collective action, and personal commitment. People have to be raised this way; they aren't born "civic" (i.e., with a deep feeling of belonging and responsibility for some common good).

Lots of evidence shows that people develop durable attitudes toward the public sphere during adolescence. They either come to see themselves as efficacious, obligated, critical members of a community, or they do not. Their identity, once formed in adolescence, is hard to shake. This theory derives from Karl Mannheim, but it has considerable recent empirical support. In the 1920s, Mannheim argued that we are forced to develop a stance toward the public world of news, issues, and governments when we first encounter these things, usually in our teens. Our stance can be one of contempt or neglect, or it can be some kind of engagement, whether critical or conservative. Most of us never have a compelling reason to reassess this stance, so it remains in place throughout adulthood. That is why generations have enduring political and social characters, formed in their early years.

Unfortunately, there is reason to suspect that young Americans are less likely to develop civic identities and values today than in the past. For instance, most of the decline in social trust since 1970 is a result of young Americans becoming highly distrustful of fellow citizens. This is bad news for any effort to develop a commons--whether a small-scale resource like a community garden or a vast social form like the Internet. There are (of course) some young people with habits and norms that are friendly to the commons, but not nearly enough.

On the bright side, we know how to develop civic identities. Adolescents need to feel that they are assets, rather than potential problems; that they matter to a group. It also helps to have direct experience with civic or public work. This is the impetus behind much service-learning. It is also what we are trying to accomplish at Maryland by helping young people to create free public goods for display on a community website