April 21, 2011

building web communities for policy discussion

(Chicago, IL) I am here to visit the impressive Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement at the University of Illinois at Chicago. (It is located right near my favorite shrine to American democracy, Jane Addams' own Hull House.) Among its many activities and projects is a whole web portal, civicsource.org, that is devoted to policy-relevant information and discussion, plus training modules and tools that help citizens to engage. It just launched, but the IPCE and the urban research university that it represents have the human resources to make it a rich source of news, ideas, and tools.

Meanwhile, AmericaSpeaks, on whose board I am honored to serve, has launched The American Square, a social network/discussion forum "devoted to enabling respectful, multi-partisan conversation about policy and politics." The organizers say, "We will find real solutions to real problems rather than on sound bites, ego, and demonization of those who disagree with us."

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March 16, 2011

critical thinking, from a youth perspective

Cathy Davidson has a great report from the recent "Designing Learning Futures" conference in LA, sponsored by the Digital Media and Learning Initiative of the MacArthur Foundation. Here is a sample to encourage you to read her whole piece:

Here is a video about the Out of the Window project.

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March 2, 2011

the Internet’s role in making engaged citizens

Below is my own summary of an important new study by Joe Kahne and colleagues. The original research is here. Or read Joe's Huff Post piece.

Drawing on a unique panel survey of the online practices and the civic and political engagement of youth (ages 16–21), the new study, partially funded by CIRCLE, addresses broad and timely questions:

Joseph E. Kahne is an education professor at Mills College and CIRCLE Advisory Board member.

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May 13, 2010

creating informed communities (part 4)

This is the fourth of five strategies proposed to achieve the goals of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities. See Monday's post for an overview.

Strategy 4: Generate Public "Relational" Knowledge

Citizens need facts about organizations, leaders, and issues. They need rival interpretations of those facts, and deliberative public judgments based on such interpretations. Citizens also need to understand the relationships among people, organizations, and issues. All competent civic and political actors, since the beginning of time, have held in their heads implicit "network maps" that link ideas and individuals in their community. They know, for example, that if they want to talk to the leader of the town, they should go through an accessible individual whom the leader regularly consults. If someone raises a local issue, they can link it to relevant organizations and to related issues.

In recent years, three developments have underlined the importance of such thinking. One is the "The New Science of Networks," as Albert-László Barabás subtitles his book Linked. This science is the mathematical exploration of nodes and network ties as they arise under various conditions, and it has yielded powerful insights, such as the value of "weak ties" and the importance of individuals who connect disparate communities.

The second development is the enormous popularity of social networking sites like Facebook, which are driven by webs of relationships. These sites have popularized the concept of network ties and underlined their importance. But Facebook and other corporate social networks keep the relational data--the "network map"--to themselves. They do so to protect users' privacy and also to give themselves a valuable asset. For example, to reach everyone at Tufts who has a Facebook account, we must pay Facebook to advertise. We cannot see a list of users who have Tufts connections.

The third development is the art of relational organizing. Relational organization groups such as the Industrial Areas Foundation and the PICO and Gamaliel Networks do not begin with clear and fixed goals. They decide what their causes should be by means of long periods of listening and discussing within diverse networks that they carefully nurture. They are highly skilled at mapping networks to identify power relationships, excluded groups, and key hubs. [See, e g., Mark R. Warren, Dry Bones Rattling: Community Building to Revitalize American Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001, pp. 31-2..

The next step is to democratize the possession of effective network maps, so that they do not exist only in the brains of skilled organizers or on the servers of Facebook and MySpace. Informed communities should have access not only to discrete facts and lists of organizations--nor should they be satisfied with geographical maps that show the physical location of organizations. They should be able to build and consult public network maps that allow them to identify power, influence, exclusion, division, and other attributes of relationships, not of individuals.

Working with Lew Friedland and his colleagues at Community Knowledge Base, we have been experimenting with public network maps in two contexts:

These are just preliminary experiments. They do not yet harness the full potential of network analysis and visualization, nor the power of computers to harvest network data automatically from websites. My basic recommendation is that governments and foundations should invest in providing transparent relational data along with the other information that is already online.

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January 28, 2010

our work with games

I begin with the philosophical premise that we should treat young people as actual citizens, capable of doing actual public work and politics. I don't begin with great enthusiasm for simulations or play-citizenship. On the other hand, there is evidence that real youth-led civic projects often lower kids' sense of "efficacy"---their belief that they can make a difference. My friends Joe Kahne and Joel Westheimer reviewed ten excellent programs--mostly focused on low-income students--and found that students' efficacy tended to fall.

The reason seems clear enough to me. Gather a group of 14-year-olds, tell them to identify a problem that is important to them, and give them a few hours a week to work on it. They will begin with a typical adolescent American sense of optimism--We can make a difference!--and will end in disappointment. The challenge is worse if they are poor. Suburban kids may choose something like traffic congestion in the school parking lot as their problem, come up with a great idea, and get thanks from their principal for their excellent thinking. Inner-city kids may choose homicide, homelessness, AIDS, or racism as their problem--and end in frustration.

So we are experimenting with curricula that mix realistic simulations with real-world work. We draw on David Williamson Shaffer's concept of epistemic games: enjoyable, computer-based simulations of adult roles. We are interested less in simulating fancy adult jobs (like ambassador to the UN) than in allowing kids to play roles that are actually accessible to them. The idea is to create a realistic but controlled context in which they can make a difference and learn concrete skills and knowledge. Playing the game takes them off the computer screen, because they must hold face-to-face team meetings, conduct research on their real communities, interview actual adults, and make final "live" presentations.

With our colleagues at University of Wisconsin, we have tested a pilot version of a game called Legislative Aide. A high school class simulates the role of staff to a fictional US Congresswoman who represents their real district. They go to a computer lab that becomes her district office. They receive emails from fictional characters who are senior Washington staff for the politician. They can also email each other. They are asked to interview real adults and develop an action plan for the Congresswoman. When the simulation is complete, they can do some real-world tasks that are part of the action plan.

We are applying to develop a similar game in which the class simulates the staff of a fictional environmental nonprofit with an EPA grant. In this game, scientific knowledge and skills are emphasized.

We have also helped write two applications to the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning Competition. They are for two versions of urban planning games. In both cases, the goal is to get teenagers around Somerville, MA to simulate the role of urban planners who are considering the momentous change that is about to hit their real city: the extension of the Green Line subway service. We hope that playing the game will not only teach the individual kids useful skills and concepts; it will also yield data about youth needs and priorities that can be transmitted to real planners and community activists.

The MacArthur grant competition includes a stage that invites public comments on applications. Please visit ours and comment.

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January 12, 2010

the French Encylopedia vs. Wikipedia

L'Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1751-1772) was a major contribution to Enlightenment civil society. Not only did it contain much knowledge (and maybe a dose of wisdom), but it specifically expanded civil rights and liberties by promoting classical liberal positions contrary to absolute monarchism, the army, and the church. It had 28 main authors, brilliant philosophes including Voltaire and Diderot, most of whom were amateurs in the sense that they were not paid to write--but they were a privileged and exceptional few. By my calculation, a new copy of the multi-volume first edition (beautifully bound in leather and illustrated) cost about as much money (456 livres) as an unskilled laborer earned in 16 months of work. The French Encyclopedia included many ground-breaking, highly original and even iconoclastic articles that changed disciplines and are still read today

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, has about 318 times more articles and roughly 85,000 active contributors. It is completely free for anyone with Internet access, and it expands freedom not because of a particular editorial commitment to liberal values, but because it is a massive, uncensored, public forum. Although it was set up for traditional encyclopedia articles, users now create live news pages as well. For example, as Clay Shirky notes, the terrorist bombings in London in 2005 were tracked in real time on a Wikipedia page created within minutes of the first explosion.

Wikipedia announces, "Visitors do not need specialized qualifications to contribute. Wikipedia's intent is to have articles that cover existing knowledge, not create new knowledge (original research). This means that people of all ages and cultural and social backgrounds can write Wikipedia articles. Most of the articles can be edited by anyone with access to the Internet, simply by clicking the edit this page link. Anyone is welcome to add information, cross-references, or citations, as long as they do so within Wikipedia's editing policies and to an appropriate standard."

Wikipedia and other peer-produced forms of knowledge demonstrate that sheer numbers of people can generate knowledge of great value. The value that they create is different from the contributions of the philosophes who wrote the Encyclopédie. I'm not sure there is a common coin with which we can compare the two, yet Wikipedia is certainly worthy of being named alongside the Encyclopédie. As proof, consider that the Wikipedia article about the Encyclopédie is itself a really good read.

There are also some interesting similarities. Although editors of the French Encylopedia chose authors, and Wikipedia is wide open, a Power Law applies in both cases--the most prolific 10% of authors contribute the majority of the content. In the former case, a man called "Louis de Jaucourt ... wrote 17,266 articles, or about 8 per day between 1759 and 1765." He sounds much like one of the dedicated enthusiasts who produces a vast supply of Wikipedia entries and keeps the whole thing alive.

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January 8, 2010

this blog turns seven

My first blog post was on January 8, 2003. Since then, I have rather obsessively posted every single work day (except when we've been on family vacations). The archives of this blog have accumulated 1,377 posts and 969,405 words.

I try not to be self-referential, but once a year, on my "blogday," I reflect a little about this forum. In 2009, the big change was my decision to have each post automatically reprinted on Facebook (and, later, tweeted on Twitter). I've enjoyed the Facebook feed because it's an unobtrusive way to tell people about new posts; and then it's easy for them to comment or show that they "like" something I've written. I now direct people who want to comment on my blog to my Facebook page. I also waste a whole lot of my own time on Facebook ....

I don't think the content of my blog changed appreciatively during its seventh year. I wrote somewhat less about electoral politics and young voters, because there was no national election. I still tried to serve up a mix of news from the field of civic engagement, reflections on current events, some philosophy, some arts, and a bit of light verse.

In 2009, there were 83,800 visits to the main blog page. That doesn't count people who read the blog on Facebook or via RSS feeds. The number of visitors was almost exactly the same as in 2008, but there are huge seasonal variations. I know from seven full years of experience that I always get many more visitors in the spring and fall than in the winter and summer. November is typically the peak month, especially when an election draws people interested in youth voters. In November 2008, there were 13,186 visits to the main page, or 440 each day. The daily average for the year 2009 was just 230.

Would-be bloggers shouldn't seek my advice, since I've never built a large audience myself. But for what it's worth, I would advise thinking about your archive as much as your current posts. After a while, you will build up quite a store of text that search engines index. If you blog about only current events, your archive will be swamped by unimaginable quantities of other people's writing. No one finds my old posts about Bush and Kerry by Googling for those search terms. But if you blog about somewhat offbeat topics, your archive becomes a store of accessible material. I guess that 80% of visitors to my website do not look at my post of the day, but rather arrive at an old post via a web search. Of late, they have been looking for Nabokov heroines, my late friend Cole Campbell, what parents want for their children, and the Spanish Renaissance painter Juan Sánchez Cotán. I am happy to oblige such tastes.

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January 5, 2010

Habermas illustrated by Twitter

The contemporary German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has introduced a set of three concepts that I find useful. They play out in the 140-character messages, "tweets," that populate Twitter. Here are Habermas' three concepts, with tweets as illustrations. (I found these examples within seconds as I wrote this blog post.)

Lifeworld is the background of ordinary life: mainly private, maybe somewhat limited or biased, but also authentic and essential to our satisfaction as human beings. When in the Lifeworld, we mostly communicate with people we know and who share our daily experience, so our communications tend to be cryptic to outsiders and certainly not persuasive to people unlike us. Real examples from Twitter: "y 21st bday with my beloved fam, bf and bff :)" ... "Getting blond highlights for new year." ... "Thanks! You too! I hope you get a chance to rest over the weekend before 'life' comes back at us."

The Public Sphere is the set of forums and institutions in which diverse people come together to talk about common concerns. It includes civic associations, editorial pages of newspapers, New England Town Meetings, and parts of the Internet. The logic of public discourse demands that one give general reasons and explanations for one's views--otherwise, they cannot be persuasive. Examples from Twitter: "Is it time to admit that the failures in our intelligence on terrorism are not systemic/technical but human/cultural?" "Clyburn Compares Health Care Battle To Struggle For Civil Rights" ... "Reports from Iran of security forces massing in squares as new footage of protests is posted." (Note that each of these tweets had an embedded link to some longer document.)

The "System" is composed of formal organizations such as governments, corporations, parties, unions, and courts. People in systems have official roles and must pursue pre-defined goals (albeit with ethical constraints on how they get there). For example, defense lawyers are supposed to defend their clients; corporate CEOs are supposed to maximize profit; comptrollers are supposed to reduce waste in their own organizations. You can see the "System" at work on Twitter if you follow Microsoft ("The Official Twitter of Microsoft Corporate Communications"), The White House, or NYTimes.

When well designed, Systems can be efficient, predictable, and fair. But they prevent participants from reasoning about what ought to be done, because officials have pre-defined goals. Thus it is dangerous for the System to "colonize" the public sphere and the Lifeworld. It is also dangerous for people to retreat entirely from the public sphere into the privacy of the Lifeworld. The Twitter Public Timeline shows this struggle play out in real time.

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January 4, 2010

innovation in technology and the humanities

In an era of obvious technological change, we tend to overestimate the impact of new technological tools and overlook innovations in the humanities. The classic example is the Gutenberg Revolution. Supposedly, the invention of movable type, which lowered the cost of reproducing documents, shattered the control of the hierarchical Catholic Church and permitted Protestant reforms such as the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages.

I've argued before that this history is mistaken. To recap the main points: The Bible was translated into vernacular languages many times during the Middle Ages. Translation was allowed and even strongly encouraged by some leading thinkers. Erasmus, a Catholic, a critic of Luther, and an adviser to popes, wrote a manifesto in favor of translation: "I would to God, the plowman would sing a text of the scripture at his plowbeam, and that the weaver at his loom, with this would drive away the tediousness of time. I would the wayfaring man with this pastime, would express the weariness of his journey." His was not a radical position but had much medieval precedent.

Today, Catholicism has a reputation for opposing translation because after the Protestant Reformation, at the Council of Trent, the Church adopted that position. The story is not: 1) the Church opposes translation; 2) Gutenberg invents movable type; and thus 3) translation occurs. It is rather: 1) The Church generally encourages translation, 2) Gutenberg invents movable type, which is helpful to Protestant pamphleteers and translators who make specifically Protestant translations of the Bible; so 3) after 150 years, the Church bans translation.

But why were translations fairly rare and unimportant in the Middle Ages and then extremely influential and controversial in the Renaissance? The reason is innovation, but not a new technology. In the Middle Ages, the best way to read and discuss the Bible was to use the Latin Vulgate edition, originally translated by Saint Jerome. That was because Latin was a living, vital language, very widely taught and understood by literate people, and shared by Europeans from Iceland to Sicily. Also, the Vulgate was a good edition, made by a great scholar directly from Greek and Hebrew. Very few medieval Europeans knew Greek, let alone Hebrew, and they had poor or inconsistent texts of the Bible in those languages. Before it was possible to make a good translation into, say, English, they needed to invent Greek and Hebraic scholarship. Thus Erasmus, in his argument for translating the Bible into the vernacular, cites the "new and marvelous kind of learning" that has made this possible. He was talking about what we call the Renaissance, not the printing press.

Another change happened simultaneously that was just as important: the vernacular languages became worthy tools for translation. At first, in the wake of the Roman Empire, there were no languages like English, French, Dutch, Spanish, German, or Italian. There were rather local dialects of Latin or German that were different from village to village and had fairly rudimentary vocabularies. That is one reason that not only scholars, but merchants and minor officials, learned Latin from a young age--it was a better means of communication than their birth tongues. To create a real language took deliberate work. Literary authors had to develop vocabularies, often borrowing from ancient languages, and their works had to achieve wide renown so that the languages could unify. For instance, Dante helped to create Italian by writing so well in his own Florentine dialect, by borrowing thousands of Latin words, and by being so widely imitated throughout the peninsula.

Thus the story is not: 1) The Church kept the Bible under wraps by banning translations; 2) the printing press expanded freedom; so 3) the Bible was translated. It is more like this: 1) People used the Bible in Latin because that was the easiest and best language; 2) Modern languages developed as a result of literary and scholarly work; 3) Scholars learned Greek and Hebrew and created reliable editions of the original scriptures; 4) Martin Luther, John Wykliffe, and others were in a position to make vernacular translations, which, in turn, helped to form modern German, English, and other languages. I think all of this would have happened without Gutenberg, because the Renaissance was already well underway when he started printing around 1439.

The moral is to pay more attention to the growth of scholarship and literature when trying to explain great changes in society--not only in 1510, but five centuries later.


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November 30, 2009

Wikipedia entries as class assignments

Jon Beasley-Murray, a Canadian professor of Spanish literature, assigned to his students the task of writing Wikipedia entries on various important Spanish-language novels. Each student would receive an A if his or her work achieved "GA [good article] status," and an A+ if the work was named a Featured Article (of which there are about 2000 in English). Indeed, his student's page on El Señor Presidente by Miguel Ángel Asturias became a Featured Article.

There is an insightful interview with Beasley-Murray on Wikipedia Signpost. He tells interesting stories about challenges and strategies for overcoming them. He also makes the general point that "educational technology" tends to ghettoize students' work on private, amateurish sites. He prefers to involve his classes in producing real social media. His students' best articles are being viewed about 600,000 times a year.

I like the idea of asking students to contribute to Wikipedia. Apparently, quite a few other professors and some secondary-school teachers have done so. In a similar vein, I asked my students this fall to publish their weekly writing assignments on a blog. We all agreed that it would not get much traffic, and it will probably be temporary, because the class is helping to build a much more sophisticated social networking website that will make the blog obsolete. Still, the act of "publishing" their work--making it accessible to search engines--has ethical and motivational significance. It means that they must consider what a community member would feel who came across their work. They are in the public sphere, which is where real citizenship takes place.

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July 7, 2009

the new media literacies

The old "media literacy" meant being able to understand a news broadcast or a commercial; having some idea how it was constructed and how it might manipulate you; being able to choose reliable and relevant broadcasts and avoid junk. Those are still good skills to have. But the new "media literacies" include things like "digital storytelling"--being able to tell a story using words, images, and sound on a website--designing a digital game, or writing a text document online with lots of collaborators.

These are active skills, befitting a more active media environment. They are also highly challenging, and it is definitely not true that "young people today" know how to use them effectively. Quite the contrary--teenagers are less likely than some older groups to spend time doing these things, and I have often found them intimidated by the combination of tech skills and civic/political skills that you need to be effective.

But here are two amazing toolkits people of all ages can use to learn the new media literacies.

1. Puget Sound Off, a great social network for youth in the Seattle area, now has a set of "interactive videos to help you master blogging, digital storytelling, and other multimedia skills."

2. The New Media Literacies Project at MIT has a large library of training videos and games that are designed to be combined, augmented, and amended by a community of users.

I think this field is in its infancy and we are just learning what skills are important and how to teach them. The best learning is experiential, and I've gained a lot from interactions with both of the projects listed above.

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June 16, 2009

open source politics

(heading back to Boston from the Midwest) I've been thinking about when it's a good idea to develop knowledge in an open way--by inviting anyone to contribute to a common pool. Wikipedia is a remarkable resource that has been built by volunteers who not only write, but also edit others' work. Google often leads you quickly to the best information, even though nobody sits at Google's HQ writing websites or picking the best ones. Google's search results are driven by choices that millions of other people have made.

Yet the White House's recent open discussion of "transparency" was quickly dominated by people who wanted Barack Obama's "real" birth certificate to be released. Their comments couldn't be deleted as irrelevant, because they did have a concern about transparency. I think their concern was simply embarrassing (to them), but I don't get to decide what's valuable or ridiculous in an open forum. The whole discussion was mostly unhelpful, in my opinion, because they dominated.

I recently visited Project Vote Smart, which employs hundreds of college students every year to collect and code candidates' position papers, speeches, and votes. This is a labor-intensive model that is threatened by automated systems that promise equally good results without human labor. Yet I suspect that the careful work of Project Vote Smart is indispensable. I doubt that we can rely on a wiki or a search engine to provide reliable information about local candidates.

Reflecting on these examples, I would propose three general principles for deciding when to use an open process:

1. It works best when value-conflicts are minor or absent and information is the main issue. That means that an open process works better in science and technology than in politics or religion.

2. It works best when millions of people participate, because they can swamp small groups of cranks. But in American politics, below the presidential level, millions of people do not participate actively. An open forum about a candidate for state legislature, for instance, is likely to draw just a handful of actual contributors.

3. It works best when stakes are relatively low. If I organized a public discussion of transparency on this website, there would be few participants, but their comments would probably be well-intentioned and thoughtful. There would be no motivation to disrupt a discussion on my personal website, because my site has little or no political importance. But if the White House organizes a discussion, all of its political opponents have motives to disrupt it. The White House is powerful, and it has enemies. When power and conflict are involved, many of the old rules of politics reassert themselves--even online.

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May 6, 2009

what the Dickens?

"I don't care whether I am a Minx or a Sphinx"
-- Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

Tired of those ugly and complicated web page addresses? This site will convert any URL into a random quotation from the works of Charles Dickens. For example, instead of using the awkward address of my blog, you can enter http://dickensurl.com/7e94/I_dont_care_whether_I_am_a_Minx_or_a_Sphinx and find yourself right back here. Bookmark it!

This is a silly example, but there are significant issues regarding domain names. When I first became interested in technology policy around 2000, I thought that simple, memorable names were going to be scarce resources that the rich and powerful would monopolize. I still think it is valuable to own, say, Boston.com (even though the current owner is the poor beleaguered Boston Globe). But it turns out that there are so many billions of web pages--often automatically generated from databases--that people can't remember URLs or tell them to each other. Instead, we rely on tools to find sites, and the most influential tools are search engines. A high Google-ranking is more valuable than a catchy domain name. That means that the policies and algorithms used by the major search engines deserve constant scrutiny.

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November 25, 2008

mapping Boston's civil society

We're busy mapping Boston. Students place nodes that represent people, ideas, or organizations on a blank plane. Each node stores data, such as contact information, goals, activities, and geographical locations. Connections among nodes represent real collaborations. The data can be shown in lots of ways--on a geospatial map, as a network diagram with various center-points, as a list of search results. Ultimately, this software will be an application for Facebook and MySpace, making it easy for people to add or use data . For now, we have a standalone website.

Here's a screenshot from today. This represents the work of just a few Tufts undergrads over a couple of weeks. We're already working with students at UMass Boston and will be expanding beyond those campuses in the spring. The software is also capable of automatically harvesting organizations and links from the Web and pasting them here to be analyzed by human beings.


Issues that students have brought up so far:

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November 10, 2008

first steps with a Boston-area social network

We have a fairly large grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service to build a new kind of social network for college students in the Boston area, to support their community research, volunteering, recruitment, and advocacy. At the heart of it is software for "mapping" the networks that exist in a community. This software will soon be plugged into major social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, so that students will find it where they are and will not have to visit a standalone site. Meanwhile, some Tufts undergrads have started to use the not-so-user-friendly standalone version. As part of a commitment to openness and public citizenship, their work is going online from the beginning. And here's a little screenshot from their emerging network map.

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October 21, 2008

at Google

I happen to be in a meeting at the Google headquarters in DC. The place is hip and techie enough that I feel moved to try a little live-blogging, but without quoting or citing any individuals. So...

2:26: Picture an ordinary office building not far from the White House. The interior space has--I suppose deliberately--been left largely unfinished. There are heating ducts everywhere, simply wrapped in foil. There are also a half-dozen large hanging monitors in view, plastic blocks for playing with, and free soft drinks in an open kitchen. Most of the people in room have federal grants for service projects in schools, colleges, or nonprofits. One could imagine a bit of a cultural gap between the audience and the space we're in, although I don't know my peers well enough to guess how they feel. Right now, we are listening to a presentation about Google for Non-Profits. The speaker is wearing a YouTube fleece.

2:32: Just heard about Google's election page, which seems fairly cool overall and has a nice feature that tells you where to vote.

2:45: The Google guy is telling us about how Google Maps can be used to organize a neighborhood cleanup. The Google corporation itself has done that, enlisting its own employees. It interests me that cleaning parks is the inevitable example of a service or volunteering project. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, cleanups are limited because they are episodic, completely noncontroversial, and not very educational. On the other hand, litter in public spaces is a classic collective-action problem, and it is interesting to find new ways to address such problems.

2:52: We're getting a dose of advertising for Google's various software offerings. No complaints from me, but I just wonder whether my peers--community-organizers and activists--like this or not. Twenty years ago, they would have been reflexively anti-corporate.

3:15: OK, that's enough. I'm not sure I'm a live-blogging kind of person.

P.S. Later on I figured out the iconography of the Google office design. All the wiring and pipes have been left exposed. Transparency--get it?

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October 9, 2008

how many social networks?

For practical reasons related to my work, I have recently joined two social networks that function roughly like MySpace or Facebook: The Five Freedoms Project Network and TakingITGlobal. A third such network is Puget Sound Off. I wouldn't join this youth site, but I have an official advisory role to Puget Sound Off and spent a few days last week visiting its organizers. And then there's always my regular old Facebook page.

Joining lots of social networks is a bit of a drag. For instance, I have my various passwords saved in one place and don't always have ready access to them. And every time someone pings me through one of these networks, I have to log on. I wondered why these other groups couldn't just use Facebook or MySpace (or both)--as we intend to do when we build a network for college-student volunteers and activists in the Boston area. The answer seems to be that there are quite a few practical barriers to doing political or civic organizing within the major proprietary social networking sites. It can be expensive to build applications for these sites, and the owners can change their policies or even shut you down.

I'm one who tends to defend corporate products that function openly or democratically. The fact that they are privately owned and profitable doesn't turn me off--in fact, I'm glad for the investment. But there seems to be a question about whether the really big commercial social networking sites are sufficiently open to support democratic activism.

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July 9, 2008

inequality in online civic engagement

Most kids are now online, but inequalities persist in their online civic engagement. I just posted a comment on this topic over at "Engaged Youth: Civic Learning Online," which is a blog worth visiting.

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April 30, 2008

"social citizens"

Here is Allison Fine's important new paper for the Case Foundation on young citizens and the Internet. It's an excellent summary. As I read the first 50 pages, which are mostly celebratory, I kept asking questions about the drawbacks or limits of online engagement. But then Allison asks what I consider the three main questions: Who doesn't use the online media for political/social purposes? Do "bubble" cultures inevitably form online because it's a medium of choice? Can online activism link effectively to government and policymaking? I might add a fourth question: Are young online citizens right to feel "a higher degree of confidence in corporations than in government institutions"? They "are drawn to brands with strong socially responsible cultures, such as Patagonia, Nau,Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and Ben & Jerry’s." But is that naive?

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April 7, 2008

hyper-local news

Since 2005, I've served on the advisory board of the New Voices project, which supports hyper-local news. Last Friday, we met to choose a third round of grantees. The formats that we support include websites, wikis, and radio (among others). The topics range from general-interest news in small communities to specialized subjects such as climate change in Vermont. The news is always produced by people who could be called "citizens," meaning that they aren't professional journalists, government officials, or media companies--although these can be involved in various ways. Our small grants have seeded some impressive projects. For example:

♦ The Twin Cities Daily Planet in Minneapolis/St Paul (MN) is a whole newspaper-like website. Original material produced by citizens is combined with articles selected from the local professional media. It's got lots of updated content and substantial amounts of advertising revenue. It's also an association that provides training and social networks for citizen journalists.

The Forum in Deerfield, CT, came online just as the town ended its old tradition of town-meeting government. It gets 37 new citizen-generated articles per week, in a town of 4,000 residents. There's lots of online discussion. Advertising revenue is quite robust.

Vermont Climate Witness is a site where citizens can post and discuss evidence of climate change at the state level. Its central feature is a map onto which citizens can add all kinds of content.

NewCastle NOW is a community newspaper for the bedroom community of Chappaqua, NY that has 57 contributors and covers all its costs through advertising. Chappaqua, home of the Clintons, has a wealthy and highly educated population. Still, I think the grant was a great idea because the Chappaqua team is figuring out all kinds of practical strategies and tools that can be easily imitated elsewhere.

♦ Appalshop in the Kentucky Mountains trains local citizens as a Community Correspondents Corps. They produce radio segments that are broadcast on local public radio. The segments are also collected on a website and available as podcasts.

These projects are typical of a broader range of civic experimentation in America today. They are nonpartisan and they welcome diverse perspectives, yet they are not rigorously neutral and detached. They support deliberation combined with creativity and action. They are unaffiliated with major institutions such as governments, unions, and religious denominations, but loyal to particular communities. They try to develop skills and confidence even as they produce useful products on deadline. They deliberately combine politics and issues, culture and entertainment, and social networks. They are entrepreneurial and eager to mix for-profit with non-profit funding.

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March 5, 2008

digital media and learning

The MacArthur Foundation ran a very competitive contest for projects that use technology to enhance learning. These are the seven winners. They are all highly creative, innovative efforts that help young people to be civic or political actors and thereby learn a range of skills. Some of the projects are elaborate and challenging simulations, but most are intended to produce real public benefits.

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November 30, 2007

youth, media, & civic participation

(From the Deliberative Democracy Consortium meeting in Bethesda, MD): Last summer, Lance Bennett of the University of Washington convened an online discussion about young people, the Internet, and civic/political participation. It was a rich dialog, representing numerous opinions, and it's worth reading if you're interested in such issues. The PDF is online.

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October 25, 2007

rumors greatly exaggerated

(In Cambridge) Anthony DeStefano quotes me in a NY Post article about Simonetta Stefanelli. This actress starred in "The Godfather" at age 17 but is now dead, according to several prominent websites. This upsets her, since she is actually alive and well. DeStefano asked me about the prevalence of false information online and what we should do about it.

One of the offending sites was Wikipedia, which can easily be corrected, as I pointed out. Indeed, the Wikipedia page on Stefanelli now says: "She is alive, and not dead, as reported previously." So that's one answer: there's false information online, but you can correct it. Unfortunately, Signora Stefanelli and her family didn't know how to edit Wikipedia, and it took a newspaper article to prompt the correction.

Sometimes people give another answer: we need to teach students how to differentiate reliable from unreliable sources. I'm skeptical about this idea, because I don't want to load an additional teaching function onto our overburdened schools. I also doubt that there are special techniques for identifying reliability online. Instead, I suspect that the ability to tell which websites are reliable is a direct function of one's general literacy and factual knowledge .

Nevertheless, I believe it's worth building websites that are comprehensible, comprehensive, up-to-date, and reliable. Then at least we can steer potentially naive readers to safe places. An example is MedlinePlus, the US Government's medical portal, which costs the federal government money to build and maintain but seems worthwhile. I am, as DeStefano says, "an advocate for funding by government and institutions of reliable Web portals."

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October 11, 2007

"Politics and the Internet, Medium of Maximum Individual Choice"

I'm speaking tomorrow at the Library of Congress. The venue is the Federal Library and Information Center Committee (FLICC), and the conference is on "Social Computing and the Process of Governance." I anticipate that most of the discussion will concern technologies that the government should deploy to serve citizens better. I will talk about the citizen's side of the equation. In order to use any sort of technology voluntarily, a person needs skills, motivations, and confidence (as well as sheer access). People have the motivation to use online government services, for instance, to renew their driver's licenses. They benefit by saving time for a task that is required. But using the Internet to contribute to the public debate, to organize fellow citizens, or to address social problems--that takes a high level of motivation and skill that does not come naturally.

Of course, that problem is not new to the Internet. It also takes motivation, skill, and confidence to organize a face-to-face meeting. But I think the situation is especially challenging in the age of the Internet--not because of the net itself, but because of the trend it represents. The trend is toward maximum individual choice, and therefore maximum individual responsibility for taking any civic or political action.

Jump back to the mid-twentieth century, when about 35 percent of jobs are unionized, more than 30 percent of the population identifies "strongly" with one party (and party identification remains remarkably stable for individuals over their lifetimes), most people attend a place of worship regularly, many Americans belong to associations with ethnic, religious, or local-community flavors, most people read a metropolitan daily newspaper, and (by the 1960s), a majority of Americans watch the network news on one of three TV channels most nights.

It's a hierarchical world. Civic participation is a duty, not a choice or a way to express personal preferences based on your own opinions. You join a union because you need a job, and perhaps because your father already has a union card. You join and support a party because of your regional and ethnic identity and family tradition. The same is true for the Knights of Columbus or the NAACP. You have some choice among newspapers and broadcast news channels, but there's nothing else on TV except news at 6 pm. Newspapers also represent a larger share of print media than they do today; there's no People Magazine.

Partly because citizens have relatively little choice, the people--mainly men--who run these institutions have a lot of leverage. Some groups are completely excluded: no women in the Jaycees; no Blacks in many unions or in the Southern Democratic Party. And there can be a long period of apprenticeship/hazing for young members.

On the other hand, all these institutions need their members' support. It is possible, for example, to vote for the other party, to move to another church, or to change the channel at 6 pm. You can certainly decide not to show up at the Rotary Club meeting or go door-to-door for the party. Therefore, there is a kind of contract between the institutions and their members. Trust in unions, associations, religious congregations, parties, and the press is very high, as recorded in surveys.

These institutions have an incentive to give their members civic identities--to get them to vote, give money, lobby, protest, or at least follow the news. Such participation increases these organizations' power and market share. They have a special interest in recruiting new members, which means that they devote attention to youth and provide "civic education" (broadly defined). They also give their own members a built-in audience for public speech. If you write for the church newsletter, send a letter to the newspaper editor, or give a speech at the union hall, there are people to listen--people with similar interests and a similar context.

I will show graphs depicting very serious declines in all these forms of membership. Those trends are by no means simply bad news. They reveal a dramatic increase in choice. You now have one hundred channels to watch at 6 pm (most of which avoid news altogether). You can join a wide array of national and international associations with very specific purposes and flavors. You can express spirituality in many ways, and certainly pick among many religious congregations--some highly political, some completely devoid of politics.

Schools also reflect this shift to choice, as mid-sized high schools with coherent--mandatory--curricula have given way, first, to large shopping-mall high schools with lots of tracking, and then to an array of small, "themed" charter schools. Choice is the byword because students who are allowed to choose are thought to be more motivated and engaged.

The advantages are pluralism and leverage for individuals versus their own voluntary associations. Because members can exit easily, leaders must improve their customer service. But there are also disadvantages. For people who have no civic or political identity to start with, it's very easy to avoid news, political ideas, and political or civic discussions. The major institutions can't put resources into developing active citizens--let alone require their members to participate in politics. Instead, today's political parties are collections of entrepreneurial candidates who depend mainly on rich donors and communicate to likely voters via broadcast television; many churches put on entertaining shows in huge suburban arenas; and local organizations are giving way to trade and professional associations. As ordinary people have gained leverage over the groups they choose to join, they have lost leverage over massive institutions such as the government and the mass media.

The Internet epitomizes all these trends, with its enormous array of choice, easy exit, and low sense of obligation. It is a powerful tool for people who have civic or political commitments, which is why civic uses of the Internet correlate positively with face-to-face civic work. But it cannot develop civic identities in people who start off without civic or political interests and beliefs.

The Internet provides an enormous audience--billions of eyeballs, in theory. But it's also a competitive marketplace for attention, in which a few sites draw disproportionate traffic. The old, face-to-face associations gave members ready-made audiences who would be interested in their views because their fates were tied together. For most Internet users, the audience is limited to a few "friends." Opportunities for using a public voice have actually shrunk.

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September 14, 2007

Flanagan on "Second Life"

Connie Flanagan, who is one of the very best developmental psychologists who studies civic and political development, has opened a discussion about virtual worlds over at the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning blog. She writes, "our material world is sorely lacking in [free] spaces, especially for young people. ... The political potential of free spaces is that they allow us to imagine what our worlds COULD be, what our institutions could look like, and what values we want to bind us together." Any comments belong with Connie's post.

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August 8, 2007

politics and a medium of choice

Kos (Markos Moulitsas Zúniga) gave a very strong speech about what the netroots have accomplished. I wasn't anywhere near the Yearly Kos convention, but the transcript is online here or you can click below to watch.

Kos is modest about his own contribution but argues that creating an online forum allowed thousands of people to become leaders:

It’s a world in which the gatekeepers in the traditional media, political and activist establishments can be easily bypassed. It doesn’t matter whether the elite think we are respectable or not. They have no right to judge us.

It is those leaders – YOU -- who are changing your country. Me? I’m just a guy who built a website. You – the thousands of YOU -- have taken hold of Daily Kos and so many great sites like it to become your own leaders. YOU are running for office. YOU are walking precincts. YOU are making campaign phone calls, talking to neighbors, families, co-workers – YOU are bringing passion back to true progressivism. YOU are building the institutions of our new progressive movement – MoveOn, Democracy for America, ActBlue, TPM Media, SoapBlox ... The culture of entrepreneurship you’ve created will provide the foundation for our future progressive majority.

All of this is true, and good news. I happen to find the discussion on DailyKos a little too tactical and insufficiently focused on visions for America. But there's some good material over there. Besides, it's better for many people to debate and influence political tactics than for tactical decisions to be left to a few professionals.

Still, I think the hand-wringing about the dominance of white men in the blogosphere is not merely PC. Old white men dominate the US Senate because there are major barriers to access and political power is unequally distributed in society. The demographic composition of the Senate reflects those underlying facts. The great question is whether online politics can shift the distribution of political power. To achieve that, we would need more than a few thousand individuals to enter the political debate. We would need a change in the underlying balance of power, which would be reflected in more diverse participants. In other words, diversity is not only a goal; it is evidence of social equity.

But the Internet is a medium of choice. So is TV, in the age of cable. Both reflect a powerful shift toward consumer choice as the central organizing principle of society. Choice is great for the politically active: those with knowledge, confidence, and interest. They have access to countless channels of information and can add their own opinions and ideas. But if you lack a political identity, choice allows you to avoid politics altogether.

In the past, you might sign up for a union because you needed a job. The union had an incentive to give you political confidence, knowledge, and interest, whether you wanted to be political or not. Unions were thus mechanisms for changing the underlying political balance of power, and they had an impact. It's not at all clear to me that the Internet (or the various net-based forms of political organizing) have had comparable effects.

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May 18, 2007

measuring online civic engagement

(Indianapolis) We have an opportunity to ask questions on a national survey that will gauge the extent of civic engagement online. We hope to repeat the same questions in subsequent years to follow trends.

It's hard to get this right. If you ask people whether they do specific activities, such as blogging or posting on message boards, two problems arise. First, these forms of engagement change very rapidly. Yesterday, it was blogging; today it is podcasting and MySpace; tomorrow it will be something else. Second, these activities are only partly "civic" or "political" (by any definition of those terms). If you ask people whether they have created a blog, you can’t tell whether they have done something relevant to politics or community issues. The blig might concern knitting or porn.

Therefore, we might be tempted to ask more abstract questions, such as: "Have you used digital media for civic purposes?" But obviously, most respondents will have no idea what this question means. So we need somewhat abstract questions that can outlast changes in technology, yet ones that people can understand.

I have pasted some draft questions below in case anyone has any advice. These draft items include abstract leads and then concrete follow-ups:

1. Within the last seven days, have you used the Internet to express opinions about politics, a social issue, or a community problem? ("The Internet" includes email and text messages as well as websites.)

If no, skip to question 3.

2. I am going to read you a list of specific Internet technologies. Please tell me whether you used each one within the last seven days to express your opinions about political or social or community issues. a. Email. b. Your own blog. c. Comments on someone else's blog. d. A social networking site like MySpace or Facebook. e. By making a photo, video, or audio and sharing it online. f. By commenting on someone else's photo, video, or audio.

3. Within the last seven days, have you used the Internet to gather information about politics or a social issue or a community problem?

If no, skip #4

4. Now I am going to read you a list of specific Internet technologies. For each one, please tell me whether you used it within the last seven days to gather information about political, social, or community issues. a. Search engines such as Google. b. Professional news websites, such as CNN.com or washingtonpost.com. c. Blogs. d. Social networking sites like MySpace or Facebook. e. Sites that contain shared pictures or videos, such as Flickr or YouTube. f. Wikipedia or another wiki site.

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March 13, 2007

demographics of the blogosphere

These are interesting results from a representative national survey.

Blog readers skew young, which isn't a surprise. (And despite the higher rate of reading among youth, probably most readers are over 30.) The male majority among visitors to political blogs is striking and not self-evident. Women are politically engaged, representing 51% of voters in 2006, according to exit polls. But men aren't only drawn to blogs; they also read newspapers more (44% of men versus 38% of women were regular readers in 2006).

The left and right seem to be about equally drawn to the blogosphere. But that doesn't mean that liberals and conservatives are equally prevalent as blog-readers. Self-described liberals are significantly outnumbered in the national population, never surpassing 20% of American adults. That means that even if the same proportions of liberals and conservatives read blogs, there are more conservative eyeballs trained on the blogosphere. Moderates seem relatively uninterested in blogs--maybe because blogs tend to be strongly ideological, or maybe because some self-described "moderates" simply lack interest in politics.

Finally, well educated and privileged people are the most likely to participate.

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February 9, 2007

Facebook and politics

(In Cambridge, MA) Students don't give a lot of money to political candidates; they don't have enough to give. In 2004, according to the American National Election Study, just 1.3% of young people (ages 18-25) said they had given money to any political candidate. In contrast, 10.1% of people over the age of 25 had made financial contributions.

However, the independent group Students for Obama (which started on FaceBook and now has 50,000 members) has figured out a way to have an impact. They write, "We understand that money is not exactly something we all have a lot of to spare; that's why we put together a list of some of the things you can skip or pass on once--and donate the amount you saved. Next time you are going to spend money on one of these items, think of instead helping break the stereotype that students do not donate and do not care about the political process." They suggest, for example, that you give up your next Starbucks Caramel Macchiato and give the $3.21 to Obama. It will be interesting to see whether this practice spreads as the '08 campaign unfolds.

[Update: see Jose Antonio Vargas' good article in the Washington Post, which cites our work. He says that the Obama Facebook site now has 279,000 members and rising.]

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January 5, 2007

understanding knowledge as a commons

Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom have just published a volume entitled Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice. The following is a brief excerpt from my own chapter that refers to several other contributions and introduces the idea of knowledge as a commons:

Just as a village common is composed of shared grass, a knowledge commons is composed of shared knowledge. Hess and Ostrom note that knowledge involves discrete artifacts (such as articles, maps, databases, and web pages), facilities (such as universities, schools, libraries, computers, and laboratories), and ideas (such as the concept of a commons itself). Thomas Jefferson already realized that ideas are pure public goods, for "he who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lites his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me."

Facilities are usually rivalrous, yet they can be run as commons and can house shared artifacts--as Benjamin Franklin demonstrated when he founded the first public lending library. Both the library building and its collections were shared, even though they were scarce and rivalrous.

In the age of networked computers, many artifacts that would have been rivalrous can be digitized, posted online, and thereby turned into public goods. Computer networks can themselves be seen as facilities that overcome some scarcity problems. The number of potential exchanges among people (or machines) that are linked in a network rises geometrically as the network adds members. Therefore, the more users, the better the network serves each user as a tool for communication and research.

I admire commons such as public libraries, community gardens, the Internet, and bodies of scholarly research because they encourage voluntary, diverse, creative activity. However, I have distinguished between a libertarian commons and an associational commons. In a libertarian commons, anyone has a right to use (and sometimes also to contribute to) some public resource. This right is de facto if no one is able to block access to the good or if no one chooses to do so. The right is de jure if it arises from a law or policy that guarantees open access. In contrast, an associational commons exists when some good is controlled by a group. As [James] Boyle notes, "the commons is not the same as the public domain; successful commons are frequently characterised by a variety of restraints--even if these are informal and collective, rather than coming from the regime of private ownership."

There is an important category of commons that are owned by private nonprofit associations. The owner (a formal organization) has the right and power to limit access, but it sees itself as the steward of a public good. As such, it sets policies that are intended to maintain a commons. For example, an association may admit anyone as a member, on the sole condition that he or she protects the common resource in some specified way. (Libraries tend to function like this.) Or a group may only admit those who have special qualifications, but impose obligations on its members in order to enhance the public good. (Scientific and professional associations often use this model.) Religious congregations, universities, scientific organizations, and civic groups differ in their rules and structures, but they often have this function of protecting or enhancing a quasi-public good.

[I then defend the associational commons and argue that to sustain it, we must find ways to include young people in its governance. That has been the agenda of our small local experiment, the Prince George's Information Commons.]

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October 23, 2006

public voice online

I am writing this post in a public voice. I don't expect to know most of my readers; therefore, I try to say something that might interest at least a subset of the whole population--a "public." I hope not only to interest readers, but to influence their behavior in ways that are relevant to shared or common concerns. I avoid obscure references to my own life and completely personal issues and interests.

It's not the number of visitors that makes my voice "public." When I wrote my first blog post almost three four years ago, I expected hardly anyone to read it. Nevertheless, I tried to use a public style. In contrast, a MySpace user may have 100 "friends" and attract a thousand hits a day, but because he adopts a highly personal tone and talks about private matters, his voice isn't a public one.

A public voice is a potential source of influence and even power. Young people must be deliberately taught to communicate publicly. Otherwise, their communications in public spaces (such as the Internet and community meetings) will be ineffective. But private discourse is also valuable, and we should be able to keep it confidential. Thus, for instance, email and instant-messaging should be protected against most forms of evesdropping so that private discourse can stay that way.

I am arguing, in short, for a distinction between public and private voice. I realize that this distinction is problematic. When it developed in the 17th-19th centuries, the border between the public and the private was gerrymandered to protect privilege. For instance, everything pertaining to the family was considered private, hence not of concern to outsiders--which meant that fathers and husbands could dominate in their own homes and no one else had enforceable rights. But the fact that the line between public and private is problematic doesn't mean that we should abandon it altogether. People should be able to use new media for purely private, intimate expression; they should also know how to use the Internet for public purposes.

Some contemporary theorists define public communication in highly stringent and demanding ways. According to Jrgen Habermas (or Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson), speaking publicly imposes a set of obligations. When in "the public sphere," one must advance arguments that any rational person can accept. That means that one may not express arbitrary opinions, assert purely selfish interests, or appeal to authorities--such as Scripture--that others reject. One may not shift positions when speaking to different audiences or give reasons that contradict one's conclusions. On this view, the public speaker is a kind of ethical and rational legislator, addressing an assembly of peers on matters of public concern.

These definitions seem much too stringent for the practical purpose that interests me, which is teaching young people to be reasonably effective in public domains. I would define a "public voice" as any style or tone that has a chance of persuading any other people (outside of one's intimate circle) about shared matters, issues, or problems. This broad definition encompasses topics beyond conventional politics. For example, bad software is a shared concern; and one can write a blog to persuade others about how to fix technical problems. Bad customer service can be a public issue if one chooses to address or organize one's fellow customers instead of complaining privately to the company. In these cases, one's voice is "public" even though the issues belong to the private sector.

We may disagree about which topics are legitimate for public discussion. For instance, disclosing one's own sexual history may be inappropriate--or it may be a means of challenging prejudices and limits. Despite these disagreements, however, it is pretty clear that standard MySpace chatter is (or ought to be) private. But most good blogs are public. And young people need to understand the difference.

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October 19, 2006

free speech online

I'm still in Chicago, now for a meeting on Free Speech in Schools ("a McCormick Tribune Foundation Summit on Youth, the First Amendment, and the Information Age"). Because of the schedule for the day, I don't expect to be able to write a substantive blog post. But the issues that we'll discuss include the censorship of school newspapers, restrictions on new media such as MySpace, filtering software in school libraries, and students' support for the First Amendment.

Meanwhile, another Chicago foundation, MacArthur, today announced its big initiative on Digital Media and Learning. One subtopic in that initiative so far has been censorship and free expression online, but MacArthur is also supporting work on civic engagement, gaming, media literacy, credibility, and identity online. The website is worth a visit.

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August 23, 2006

citizen news projects

People frequently send me links to websites on which citizens (not professional journalists) present local news. Two recent examples from my inbox:

Corpus Beat is an impressive site from Corpus Christi, TX, with news articles, blogs, photo competitions, and organizational charts of local government, among other features. Much of the content seems to be created by local kids. I especially liked a series of interviews of local officials and a feature called "Brain Gain," about how to prevent college-educated young people from leaving the area. All the articles for "Brain Gain" were written by students. In keeping with classic public journalism experiments from the 1990s, Corpus Beat convened a forum on the brain drain problem and reported the results--thereby prompting public deliberation and covering it as news.

Much closer to (my) home, College Park, MD now has a well-written, independent blog about local issues. Rethink College Park has two staffers but is open to adding more.

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July 10, 2006

the press and civic engagement

Below the fold, I have pasted a longish draft essay on the evolution of the news media and its impact on democracy. (A revised version will go into a book on civic engagement that is due next month.) In essence, I argue that we had a particular model of the news business between 1900 and 2000 that became increasingly dysfunctional for citizens. It offered limited opportunities to write the news--that's a well-known flaw. It also assumed an audience of people who were interested in public issues and who trusted professional reporters to be objective, balanced, reliable, and independent. That audience encompassed the most active citizens, as surveys show. But it shrank rapidly in the last quarter of the 1900s. Resurrecting the twentieth-century press now seems impossible, but the new digital media have promise.

Until the Progressive Era (ca. 1900-1914), most American newspapers and magazines reflected the positions of a party, church, or association and aimed to persuade readers or motivate the persuaded. The exceptions, beginning with the New York Sun in 1833, were independent businesses that sought mass audiences in big cities. All 19th-century newspapers freely combined opinion and news. They printed fiction and poetry along with factual reporting. They often ran whole speeches by favored politicians or clergymen. Standards of evidence were generally low. However, publications were relatively cheap to launch, so they proliferated; 2,226 daily newspapers were in business in 1899.[1] A small voluntary association or independent entrepreneur could break into the news business, hoping to make money or to push a particular ideology, or both.

The nineteenth century was also an age of partisan citizenship, in which people were expected to show loyalty to a party, a union, a church, a town or state, and sometimes a race or ethnic group. Often such loyalties were ascribed from birth; they were matters of affiliation rather than assent, as Michael Schudson writes.[2] Voting was a public act, an expression of loyalty, not a private choice. Politics involved torchlight parades and popular songs; the essence of civic life was boosterism; and newspapers were written in a similarly rousing, communitarian spirit.

As Schudson has shown, the new model citizen of the Progressive Era--an independent, well-informed, judicious decision-maker--needed a different kind of newspaper, one that provided reliable information clearly distinguished from opinion, exhortation, and fiction. Leading newspapers were separated from parties and religious denominations and began to claim objectivity and independence. Their intended audience became all good citizens, not just members of particular groups. When they introduced opinion columns and letters pages, they often strove for ideological balance. As Adolph Ochs announced when he bought The New York Times in 1896, his intention was to give the news, all the news, in concise and attractive form, in language that is parliamentary in good society, and give it early, if not earlier, than it can be learned through any other reliable medium; to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of any party, sect, or interest involved; to make of the columns of The New York Times a forum for the consideration of all questions of public importance, and to that end to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.[3]

The transformation of the American press coincided with the ascendance of logical positivism, which sharply distinguished verifiable facts from subjective opinions.[4] Furthermore, the independent newspaper arose along with the modern research university, whose mission was to create independent, judicious decision-makers instead of loyal members of a community. Finally, the new press reflected an ideal of a trained, professional journalist that took shape when many other occupations were also striving to professionalize.[5]

At about the time when journalists developed ideals of objectivity, independence, and neutrality, the news business consolidated. For example, the number of daily newspapers in New York City fell from 20 in the late 1800s to eight in 1940. Meanwhile, the first newspaper chains were established.[6] Most people began to obtain news from a daily publication with a mass circulation, and they had relatively little choice. Consolidation of the news business and journalistic professionalism could be justified together with one theory. An excellent newspaper--and later, an excellent evening news show on television--was supposed to provide all the objective facts that a citizen needed in order to make up his or her own mind. The citizen did not need much choice among sources, because any truly professional and independent news organ would provide the same array of facts. Some competition might be valuable to encourage efficiency and rigor, but all credible journals would compete for the same stories. Choice was a private matter to be exercised after one had read the newspaper or watched TV. One was to be guided not by an ascribed identity but by making informed selections among policy options.

This new model had idealistic defenders, but it also had several serious drawbacks that became increasingly clear as the century progressed. First, the new journalism was probably not as effective at mobilizing citizens as the old partisan press had been. Although we lack data on individuals newspaper use and civic engagement from before the 1950s, we know that overall turnout and other measures of participation fell as the press consolidated and aimed at professionalism. It seems likely that the new journalism was less motivating.

Second, it became harder to break into the news business once newspapers needed not only printing presses, ink, and paper, but also credentialed journalists, editors and fact-checkers, and a staff large enough to provide comprehensive coverage (all the news thats fit to print). Thus the telling of news became the province of a few professionals employed by large businesses, not an activity open to many citizens. That problem worsened once radio and television arrived.

Third, journalistic professionalism often seemed to introduce its own biases. For example, journalists were trained not to editorialize in news stories. That meant that they often simply quoted other peoples controversial views, usually aiming for as much balance as possible between voices on either side of a debate. To call the president a liar is to editorialize; to quote someone who holds that view is to report a fact. But one still has to choose whom to quote, and the tendency is to interview famous, powerful, or credentialed sources--often those with talents or budgets for public relations and axes to grind. In 1999, 78 percent of respondents to a national survey agreed: powerful people can get stories into the paper--or keep them out.[7] Sometimes the norm of balance created a bias in favor of the mainstream left and mainstream right, marginalizing other views. On occasion, it meant that reporters gave excessive space to demonstrably false opinions, because they saw their job as reporting what prominent people said, not what was right.

While professional reporters felt bound not to promote policy positions, those who closely covered campaigns and administrations believed they could say who was winning and losing and why politicians had adopted their current positions. Similarities between candidates views and public opinion (as measured by the newspapers own polls) were taken as evidence that politicians were simply trying to attract votes. Thus readers were offered a relentlessly cynical view of politicians motives, plus an interminable policy debate among experts who were equally balanced between the right and left, plus polls showing that one side or the other was bound to win. It is no wonder that many lost interest in politics. None of this coverage helped citizens to play a role of their own.

Modern professional journalism placed a tremendous emphasis on politics as a horse race. Three quarters of broadcast news stories during the 2000 campaign were devoted to tactics and polls; only one quarter, to issues.[8] As CNN political director Mark Hannon explained in 1996, his network conducted daily polls because they happen to be the most authoritative way to answer the most basic question about the election, which is who is going to win.[9] In fact, during a campaign, the most basic question for a citizen is not who will win, but which candidate to support. But reporters reflexively see that question as one for the editorial pages, whereas they can cover polls as simple empirical facts. Yet the depiction of politics as a horse race suggests that a campaign is a spectator sport (and not a particularly elegant or entertaining one). Controlled experiments have found that such coverage raises cynicism and lowers engagement.[10]

Finally, the ideal news organ of the Progressive Era demanded a lot of trust from its readers. Perhaps objectivity, independence, and balance are possible in theory; in practice, however, any news source is a fallible human product. Major newspapers, magazines, and broadcast news have powerful effects on politics and public opinion. The newspaper that claims to be objective, independent, and nonpartisan asks us to believe that the consequences of its reporting are involuntary, caused by the facts and not by any political agenda. That defense can be hard to swallow. In 2004, two thirds of all Americans thought they detected at least a fair amount of bias.[11]

The most glorious chapter in the history of the modern American press was written between 1965 and 1975, when The Washington Post and The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, broke the Watergate scandal, and had their constitutional role as independent watchdogs upheld by the Supreme Court. Their reporting certainly had consequences, helping to end a war and bring down a president. That was all very well if one opposed the Vietnam War and President Nixon. But the same power could also be used against President Clinton or against the welfare state. Anyone whose political goals were frustrated by the press might find it difficult to trust reporters as objective and independent. Ones skepticism might be reinforced by the fact that each newspaper has owners, investors, and advertisers with economic interests. Writers and editors, too, form a definable interest group.

The debate about corporate power in the news media is at least a century old and is perennially important. In the 1990s, a new discussion began that concerned reporters professional norms. Some reporters, editors, and academics argued that the newsroom ideals developed during the Progressive Era no longer served democracy and civic engagement. A newspaper like The New York Times, as Ochs had envisioned it, presumed a public that was interested in current events and ready to act on the information it read. But that public was shrinking, and it could be argued that the prevailing style of news reporting was actually making it smaller by increasing cynicism. Adversarial, watchdog journalists still played an important role in periodically uncovering scandals, but it was not clear why an individual citizen should spend money and time reading such information every day. When a big scandal broke, the opposition party or law enforcement was supposed to address it. Why should individuals pay for independent oversight as a public good? Only those who were already civically engaged would choose to subscribe to the watchdog press. Their numbers were falling, and they could find ever less information in the newspaper that could inform for their own civic activities.

In the 1990s, under the labels of public journalism or civic journalism, news organs experimented with new forms of reporting that might better serve active citizens and enhance civic engagement. For example, instead of reporting the 1992 North Carolina Senate campaign as a horse race (with frequent polls and numerous articles about the candidates strategies), the Charlotte Observer convened a representative group of citizens to deliberate about issues of their choice and to write questions for the major contenders. The newspaper offered to publish the questions and responses verbatim. Meanwhile, its beat reporters were assigned to provide factual reporting on each of the topics that the citizens chose to explore. When Senator Jesse Helms refused to complete the questionnaire that the citizens had written, the Observer published blank spaces under his name.[12]

Careful evaluations have found positive effects from this and other such experiments. But public journalism faltered as a movement by the end of the decade.[13] One of the reasons was the sudden rise of the Internet. The newspaper business, panicked by independent websites and bloggers, lost interest in civic experimentation. Meanwhile, many of proponents of public journalism began to see the Internet as more promising than reforms within conventional newsrooms.

After all, blogs, podcasts, and other digital media make possible a return to the press that existed before the Progressive Era--for better and, for worse. The barriers to publication have fallen, not only because websites are cheaper than printing presses, but also because a mass audience has returned to products created by individuals and amateurs. Blogs are endlessly various. Some are specialized sites devoted to careful, factual reporting on particular topics, but most are motivational, ideological, and opinionated, with comparatively low standards of evidence and no trained reporters, fact-checkers, or editors. However, there are millions of them and they often check one anothers facts. Young people are heavily represented and have better opportunities to enter the fray than at any time since 1900.

Twentieth century news media claimed to separate fact from fiction--not always successfully. Then the audience for straight news reporting shrank, along with the rate of civic engagement. But fiction can promote civic participation, as long as it is of high quality. For example, it appears that watching and discussing the fictional world of The West Wing (an NBC television drama) has positive civic effects, whereas watching sitcoms is bad for civic engagement.[14] Unfortunately, the balance of material that major entertainment businesses provide is not good for democracy. But barriers to making films have fallen: artists and other citizens have growing opportunities to create and promote work in all genres that helps people to engage.

Blogs, short videos and audios, and other innovative news media should help to many people to mobilize and organize their fellow citizens. Until recently, trust in journalists, consumption of newspapers, and civic engagement were strongly correlated, but the links may be weakened if people can gain the information they need to participate from other sources. Those who are not inclined to trust the mainstream press will still be able to participate.

Clearly, there are also dangers. An online audience can screen out uncomfortable ideas, thereby splitting into ideologically homogeneous echo chambers. There is a relative scarcity of online content devoted to local communities. It can be difficult to distinguish the source and reliability of online information. And the web provides a sometimes confusing mix of fact, opinion, error, deliberate falsification, and overt fiction.

Each of these dangers can be addressed by citizens working online, and sometimes software can help. For example, Wikipedia provides surprisingly reliable information through a system of peer review involving many thousands of volunteers. Technoratis software increases the chance that bloggers will engage in conversations with their critics, by alerting them whenever their writing has been linked from elsewhere. Social networking software like MySpace (which is currently very popular among the young) can be tweaked so that it helps people identify neighbors with similar political interests.

If there is hope that citizens can address the drawbacks of the new online media through voluntary action, then it would be unwise to enact policies to shape what should be a free space. We should, however, act to prevent two pressing problems. First, it is possible to make handsome profits by limiting customers access to material produced by ordinary citizens and driving them to corporate content. Internet service providers may be tempted to provide quicker access to websites that pay them for that advantage; cable companies may charge higher fees for uploading data than for downloading corporate material; and most search engines already sell preferential treatment. Legislation is needed to keep the Internet neutral and open.[15]

Second the blogosphere still depends on daily news journalism. Therefore, cuts in newsroom staff and attempts to replace hard news with entertainment are still damaging, even in the Internet era.


1. Bruce M. Owen, Economics and Freedom of Expression: Media Structure and the First Amendment (Cambridge, MA, 1975), table 2A-1.
2. Michael Schudson, The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life (New York: The Free Press, 1998), p. 6.
3. Quoted by Schudson, p. 178, who notes that Ochs also pledged to promote right-doing and to maintain a commitment to political principles, such as sound money and tariff reform. But it was the section I quote that was most influential,
4. An influential defense in English was A.J. Ayers 1936 book Language, Truth, and Logic. However, the prestige of logical positivism owed more to the apparently unambiguous progress of science before World War II than to any theoretical defense.
5. Burton J. Bledstein, The Culture of Professionalism: the Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., l976); Schudson, pp. 179-182.
6. Mitchell Stephens, Newspaper, Colliers Encyclopedia, 1994, available via www.nyu.edu/classes/stephens.
7. American Association of Newspaper Editors, Examining Our Credibility, August 4, 1999, available via www.asne.org/kiosk/reports/99reports.
8. Annenberg Public Policy Center, Networks Only Aired About One Minute of Candidate-Centered Discourse a Night in the Days Leading to the Election: More Stories Focused on Horse-Race & Strategy
than Issues & Substance, press release, Dec. 20, 2000.
9. James Bennet, Polling Provoking Debate in News Media on its Use, The New York Times, Oct. 4, 1996, p. A24.
10. Joseph N. Cappella and Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Spiral of Cynicism: The Press and the Public Good. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997)
11. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, Cable and Internet Loom Large in Fragmented Political News Universe: Perceptions of Partisan Bias Seen as Growing, Especially by Democrats, January 11, 2004.
12. Peter Levine, The New Progressive Era (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), pp. 156-7
13. Lewis A. Friedland, Public Journalism: Past and Future (Dayton, Ohio: Kettering Foundation Press, 2003 {P???}
14. Dhavan V. Shah, Jack M. Mcleod, and So-Hyang Yoon, Communication, Context, and Community An Exploration of Print, Broadcast, and Internet Influences, Communication Research, Vol. 28, No. 4, 464-506 (2001)
15. Jeffrey Chester, The Death Of The Internet : How Industry Intends To Kill The 'Net As We Know It, TomPaine.com, October 24, 2002.

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July 7, 2006

youth media and the audience problem (revisited)

I'm interviewing adults who help youth to make digital media (videos, podcasts, online newspapers)--and also some of the kids who actually do this work--to find out what kinds of audiences they want to reach and how satisfied they are with their impact. (Some background here.) Yesterday, I interviewed the leader of an important nonprofit that trains kids to make documentaries. She said that youth in her program are encouraged to think about their audience from the beginning of their projects. At first, they want to reach "everyone," but then they "fine-tune" their goals to be more realistic and to enhance their impact on their communities. They are less concerned, she said, with the number of viewers than with "the kind of conversations" that they provoke.

The youth in this program are "very eager to get an audience" and to provoke "public discussions," because showing their work makes it "real"; it provides "evidence to the kids themselves" that they have achieved something significant.

Left to their own devices, adult audiences usually ask unhelpful questions, such as: "Why did you choose this topic?" Or "Do you want to be a professional film-maker?" The youth have begun to circulate better questions in advance, such as: "What can we do about the problem that you have presented in your video?" Or, "What were the strongest and weakest parts of the documentary?" Adults like to be guided in this way.

Most of this discussion and feedback occurs in face-to-face settings. A good example was a public screening of a youth-made video about gentrification, attended by academic experts, activists, and some of the kids' parents and friends. The discussion was very rich and rewarding for the young film-makers. Overall, my interviewee thought that youth were both satisfied and dissatisfied with their audience--glad for the feedback they receive, but not fully satisfied by their impact on their communities.

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June 29, 2006

kids, communities, and online popularity

I am concerned that we are setting kids up for disappointment when we tell them that the Internet gives everyone the equivalent of a broadcast studio with which one can reach many people and change the world. Even if some kids are highly successful, most will not draw a significant audience.

Yochai Benkler's excellent book the Strength of Networks (which is available free online with interactive features) is a useful starting point for considering this problem. In this post, I draw on Benkler's Chapter 7.

Some early enthusiasts for the Internet assumed (with the Supreme Court in Reno v. ACLU) that everyone with a computer could become a "pamphleteer," putting ideas into the public arena that would reach audiences simply in proportion to their relevance, value, or popularity. In that case, the popularity of websites would follow a bell curve, with more sites near the median than near the tails.

But Benkler rejects such "mid-1990s utopianism" (p. 260). A few sites are enormously more popular than the median, and there is a long tail in which sites show little evidence of an audience at all. For example, the median blog currently tracked by Truth Laid Bear (a popular ranking service) has two incoming links, whereas the top blog has 4,201.

Early papers that discovered this "power-law" (see graph, below) took a skeptical or critical line. The Internet was not a democracy or a meritocracy. Rather, people and search engines linked to sites that were already popular, thus making them more so. The rich got richer, regardless of merit.

But Benkler summarizes findings that are more optimistic than a pure power law-theory would imply. Mathematical models of the web suggest that unknown sites do rise in popularity and popular ones fall. There are many stories about innovations in tactics, techniques, or ideas that spread very rapidly. For instance, BoycottSBG--a response to the Sinclair Broadcasting Group's alleged Republican bias--obtained enormous participation within a week. As Benkler says, "it was providing a solution that resonated with the political beliefs of many people and was useful to them for their expression and mobilization" (p. 247).

Benkler observes a "self-organizing principle" on the World Wide Web. People with strong mutual affinities find one another and link their websites or leave comments on each others' pages. Within these affinity groups, some sites become more popular than others. But (a) there are many affinity groups, and (b) the popularity curve is not always steep within a group. "When the topically or organizationally related clusters become small enough--on the order of hundreds or even low thousands of Web pages--they no longer follow a pure power law distribution. Instead, they follow a distribution that still has a very long tail--these smaller clusters still have a few genuine 'superstars'--but the body of the distribution is substantially more moderate: beyond the few superstars, the shape of the link distribution looks a little more like a normal distribution." (p. 251)

Clusters of affinity groups then aggregate, often through sites that are or become "superstars." We thus see a highly skewed distribution of popularity on the Internet as whole, yet the Web remains plural and open because of all the smaller groups. As Benkler says, "There is a big difference between a situation where no one is looking at any of the sites on the low end of the distribution, because everyone is looking only at the superstars, and a situation where dozens or hundreds of sites at the low end are looking at each other, as well as at the superstars" (p. 251). On Benkler's model, "filtering for the network as a whole is done as a form of nested peer-review decisions, beginning with the speakers closest information affinity group" (p. 258). Lively dialogues begin "with communities of interest on smallish scales, practices of mutual pointing, and the fact that, with freedom to choose what to see and who to link to, with some codependence among the choices of individuals as to whom to link, highly connected points emerge even at small scales, and continue to be replicated with ever-larger visibility as the clusters grow" (p. 252).

Thus Benkler contends that the Internet is considerably more "democratic" (i.e., pluralist, open, and responsive to spontaneous popular opinion) than the traditional mass media, even if it is not utopian. I can share those views, yet I continue to worry about ordinary kids in ordinary settings who are asked to express themselves through the World Wide Web.

1. Most kids will not draw substantial audiences, because most websites remain in the tail of the distribution. If you have a less popular site, you get little feedback from your readers and viewers. Kids who create such sites may feel that they are failures, in a culture that prizes popularity.

2. Kids are unlikely to obtain a substantial audience through sheer talent or innovation or by "resonating" with public opinion. Some kids will, but the average won't.

3. Kids may not belong to tight affinity groups, differentiated from the mass youth population. Benkler mentions "communities of interest on smallish scales" that conduct peer-review and create audiences by linking to one another. But adolescents do not automatically have such communities. The typical US high school is a massive and anonymous institution to which students do not feel attached. Kids have common concerns, but they tend to share them with millions of others. Mass media culture is profoundly homogenizing.

I suspect that the solutions to these problems do not lie primarily online. For example, the current movement to create small, "themed" high schools to replace large comprehensives would put kids in cohesive communities. Many students would care about shared local issues. They would then be interested in one another's online products. But that change would begin with a "breaks-and-mortar" reform: building smaller schools. Likewise, when students throughout Hampton, VA, are recruited to sit on the city's various boards, kids develop a common interest in their geographical community. But that interest starts with a policy change.

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May 31, 2006

youth media

I'm still in Seattle for an academic conference on youth media. I'm struck by how essentially normative (value-laden) our definitions of "politics" and "civic engagement" are. Ask yourself whether the following behaviors are "political"? It depends on whether you think their goals are worthy:

  • Using the raw material of an advertisement to create an anti-corporate parody ("culture jamming").
  • Providing free technical guidance to assist fellow users of proprietary software.
  • Organizing a petition to persuade a record label to give your favorite artist a new contract. (Does such a petition stake a claim of partial ownership to the music, therefore challenging corporate capitalism?)
  • Organizing a reform movement within a massive multiplayer game? (Is the virtual world of the game a public good worthy of such concern?)
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    May 30, 2006

    taking back the culture

    (Seattle) Here's a speech for a presidential candidate in '08:

    "American popular culture is hurting us. It subjects our children to explicit sexuality and violence. It's relentlessly consumerist and materialist. It tells the rest of the world that we are a nation obsessed with violence, sex, and consumer goods, lacking spiritual depth. Our movies and music are popular, but people in other countries regard them as low pleasures.

    "How did we let this happen to us? Have we not produced twelve Nobel laureates in literature, the world's greatest research universities, inspiring religious and political leaders, and major movements in all the arts? Are we not the home to global religious denominations and the birthplace of the environmental movement? Why do we let media companies and celebrities define us?

    "Censorship is not the answer. Broadcast media can be regulated to a degree, but most communications have already moved to cable, DVD, and the Internet. The courts--rightly, in my opinion--will block most efforts to regulate the content of these media.

    "Censorship empowers the government to make decisions, and politicians can abuse that power. Besides, we don't need to be babysat.

    "We do need to control our own culture. We can do that, to a degree, through our own decisions. For example, we can turn off the TV. At the grassroots level, people can act together to change their media consumption--for instance, by scheduling community events for prime time, so that kids have alternatives.

    "But the government also has a role.

    "First, the United States must stop carrying Hollywood's water. Other countries want to limit the amount of US media that's shown on their broadcast channels. Our government fights tooth and nail to remove those limits. That stance may create a few jobs in Hollywood, but it also floods foreign countries with media that depicts us in a bad light. The US was defeated, 158-1, in a recent UNESCO vote on preserving cultural diversity. We need to drop that position until our media companies make products that serve us better.

    "More important, people need help in creating alternative media that are more responsible, that reflect their best values. In public schools, we should teach all kids to make digital media: websites, movies, audio segments. Students will be supervised, so their products won't be profane or violent or sexually explicit. The idea is to teach them how to make--and appreciate--responsible media. A public school teacher cannot lead a class in making religious videos. But students can use the skills and habits of media-creation that they learn in schools in other venues, including their religious communities.

    "Finally, we need to create a new model for public broadcasting. PBS, NPR, and the rest of the public system was created after Newton Minow observed that television had become a "vast wasteland." He said that in 1961; the situation is worse today. But the public system is obsolete. Most people won't give money to sustain programs on one channel out of 80 or 95. Public broadcasting increasingly relies on corporate sponsorship: advertising by another name. And it has become a political football, because people are offended when their taxes support opinions that they dislike. With Jefferson, they believe that 'to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.'

    "In the future, public broadcasting should support a diverse range of voluntary citizens and groups to make high-quality content. It should supply facilities, broadcast spectrum, training, quality-control, and archives of raw material. Public broadcasters should not monopolize channels, but should empower citizens to produce their own media.

    "Nowadays, whenever politicians want to make something sound important, they connect it to national security. Well, the way we present ourselves to the world really is a national-security issue, for today the great struggle is for the respect of a global population. But even if al-Qaeda and other enemies went away, it would still be crucial to take control of our own media. We are not a self-governing and free people if we allow a few corporations to define our fundamental character."

    [Note: There is much talk right now about where the Democrats should place themselves on a left-right ideological spectrum. But there are many critical issues that don't fit anywhere along that line. Taking a hard line against corporate media is an example of a position that is neither to the left nor the right of the Democrats' current mainstream; it takes us off in a different direction entirely. Republicans, too, ought to consider a positive response to cultural pollution.]

    permanent link | comments (5) | category: Internet and public issues

    May 24, 2006

    New Voices

    The New Voices project at J-Lab makes small grants to citizen groups to create news media. I've served on the selection committee. There is a nice 3-minute video about some of the grantees on the Knight Foundation website.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    May 16, 2006

    Congress vs. Facebook

    Any American between the ages of 15 and 25 (or any parent or teacher thereof) has probably heard of Facebook, Friendster, and MySpace, the social networking services. Users create webpages with their pictures and self-descriptive information. Visitors can also leave notes and see links to the owners' friends' pages.

    Such services are hugely popular; in fact my college students use Facebook instead of email. The general idea has lots of potential for other applications. For example, e-ssembly is a new social networking service explicitly designed to facilitate political discussion and organization.

    However, via Mobilizing America's Youth, I learned about HR 5319, the "Deleting Online Predators Act" of 2006. This bill would require schools that accept federal discounts for Internet service to:

    prohibit access by minors without parental authorization to a commercial social networking website or chat room through which minors may easily access or be presented with obscene or indecent material; may easily be subject to unlawful sexual advances, unlawful requests for sexual favors, or repeated offensive comments of a sexual nature from adults; or may easily access other material that is harmful to minors.

    I can't imagine a way to block all "harmful" material on a social network. That means that the bill would force high schools to ban social networking software. Granted, the expansion of Facebook to high schools has provoked criticisms. Among other problems, there is some potential for stalkers to create accounts. However, young people have First Amendment rights and need to be able to use new modes of communication. For example, almost everyone agrees that teenagers should be allowed to use email and the web, even though both contain much harmful material. When it comes to social network software, schools can set their own rules and don't need to be babysat by the federal government. Surely there must be a better way to prevent stalking than by banning social software in all the high schools of America.

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: Internet and public issues

    April 10, 2006

    the world of DailyKos

    In the New York Review of Books, Bill McKibben reviews a new book by the bloggers Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zniga, Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics. He uses the opportunity to describe the network of Zniga's DailyKos, Talking Points Memo, Atrios, and related blogs as "the most ambitious, interesting, and hopeful venture in progressive politics in decades." I found the review a perceptive description of this network (which draws at least half a million people a day); but I have mixed feelings about its impact and potential.

    Armstrong and Zniga describe Howard Dean's appeal in '04 as "ideologically agnostic, purely partisan." That's also a reasonable summary of their style of web-based politics. [See an explicit statement here.] They want to see Democrats play hard. They admire politicians, like Gov. Dean, who attack the Republicans; and they despise Democrats, like Senator Lieberman, who cloud the issue by praising Republicans. Their fury at Lieberman is not ideological, for they will support Democrats who defend the Iraq war--it's rather the anger of a sports fan who thinks that an athlete is not playing to win.

    To give Zniga and his allies their due: They have pioneered techniques that allow many thousands of people to participate in Party politics. People without much money can make small financial contributions that are aggregated strategically on the Web. Participants can also volunteer time and contribute ideas. Devoted fans of the Democrats are becoming players.

    Another benefit of this new style of politics is to increase participation and competition in every community, even the "reddest," most gerrymandered of GOP congressional districts. Unlike the official parties (which save their ammunition for "swing" seats), Kos and his allies believe that every election should be contested. That is good because it gives more people opportunities to participate.

    I should also note that 2006 is the perfect year for the Kos approach. The main issue really will be incompetence and corruption in one-party Washington, and people (some people) really will vote Democratic simply in order to check and oversee the Republicans. This is one year when it may work simply to attack the incumbent party and promote an alternative set of players.

    But that approach didn't succeed in '04, and it won't work in '08. The reason, in my opinion, is a basic imbalance between liberals and conservatives. For a long time, there have been more of the latter than the former.

    To be sure, what "conservatives" believe has changed over time. Today, most self-described conservative voters favor Social Security, Medicare, the right to interracial marriage, and free-speech rights for gays--all positions that conservatives opposed forty years ago. Liberals have won many struggles.

    But there is not a majority in favor of ambitious change in a liberal direction, whereas there is a majority in favor of the kinds of policies that Republicans favor (which include Social Security and Medicare, along with tax cuts, school prayer, and government surveillance of communications). Real social change requires either new policies or new arguments, not just more aggressive competition.

    I am not one of those who claim that Democrats lack "new ideas." The GOP is mostly singing from Barry Goldwater's 1964 hymnal, whereas various Democrats have innovative proposals. The problem is rather that Democrats need consensus about coherent and compelling new ideas much more than Republicans do, and they must make their ideas more central to their campaigns. If neither side has a mandate for change, people will usually vote for the party that best reflects their attitudes on moral issues--currently, the GOP.

    I like Kos' wiki space, which allows people to collaborate in designing new policy ideas--that could be revolutionary. However, I don't think that's where the participants are putting their energy; the results, so far, aren't terribly compelling. While McKibben praises the Kos energy policy (and it seems impressive), the health care page, which is more typical, is just a short critique of the status quo with some talking points about several alternatives--nothing novel or particularly persuasive. I can't find any discussion of the new Massachussetts health care plan: a bipartisan effort that deserves consideration and scrutiny. It would be churlish to complain about an ordinary progressive blog that failed to address health care in a substantive way--but DailyKos receives an average of 500,000 daily visits and offers myriad opportunities for those visitors to contribute ideas. If all those people overlook the Massachussets health care plan, then I infer a lack of interest in health policy. In contrast, there is enormous interest in Scooter Libby, Condi's admission that thousands of tactical mistakes were made, Tom DeLay's resignation, etc., etc. Again, a critical style may work in '06; but '08 is not far away.

    permanent link | comments (3) | category: Internet and public issues , revitalizing the left

    March 24, 2006

    websites for civic renewal

    Along the right-hand column of this page, I've been running automated excerpts from blogs about civic renewal. Below is a list of these blogs, including some exciting newcomers. All these sites provide a high dose of news and information (along with some commentary and opinion) and emphasize civic work of various kinds:

  • Civic Mission of Schools blog, with the daily news on civic education and youth service, provided in part by CIRCLE graduate assistant Gary Homana.
  • Smart Communities, a blog by the President of the Pew Partnership for Civic Change, Suzanne Morse
  • The Public Journalism Network Blog: keeping alive the spirit of public or civic journalism
  • The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation's news page, for practical work on public deliberation
  • International Civic Engagement blog from Park University
  • Public Engagement, a blog by the University of Minnesota's Associate VP for Public Engagement, Victor Bloomfield
  • Silver in Seattle, by David Silver, guru of online civic work
  • Otherwise Engaged by Alexandra Samuel: "Every blogger's guide to civic engagement. Every citizen's guide to blogging."
  • Democracy LABlog, with Lars Hasselblad Torres' "updates from the field"
  • permanent link | comments (1) | category: Internet and public issues

    March 21, 2006

    digital media: the audience problem

    I'm writing a mini-proposal for a project on the digital media and civic engagement. I'm thinking of exploring the following problem.

    A new generation is coming of age at a time when various electronic media are ominipresent, cheap, and sophisticated. Two contradictory aspects of the new media will influence civic development. On one hand, people around the world can, with increasing ease, get access to the same materials--whether music, video, or political speeches and statements. Some items become extraordinarily popular. They often feature talented celebrities who have the support of technical experts. Although some products backed by big corporations fail in the marketplace, corporate investment at least increases the odds of obtaining a large audience. There is also the network-concentration problem that I mentioned last Friday: a few websites draw an enormous amount of traffic, presumably because they are popular; therefore, people (including me) want to know what they're saying. What is popular tends to become more so.

    The easy availability of celebrity culture reduces demand for ordinary people's creativity and makes the world more homogeneous, thus frustrating local communities (and even whole nations) that want to govern their own cultures. The more that slick, professional products penetrate the international market, the less scope exists for ordinary people to create cultural products that others will value. This phenomenon is relevant to "civic engagement." We participate not only by influencing our governments, but also by helping to shape our cultures.

    On the other hand, the same technology that gives billions of human beings instant access to the world's most popular culture also allows the same billions to produce and disseminate their own ideas, which can be diverse and relevant to their communities. Never has it been as cheap or quick to produce text, sound, or moving images. This opportunity for creativity has great civic potential; it could turn people from spectators and consumers into creators.

    However, most young people do not have such extraordinary talent (or privileged positions in networks) that they can gain huge followings. If there are several million blogs, then the average blog will attract just a few visitors. The topics that young people know best are very local, and that means that not many other people have an interest in what they say. And even if you attend the same school as someone, you may not be interested in her views about local issues like school uniforms or cafeteria food--not when you can download a professional video for free.

    An audience needn't be big, but it must be interested and responsive, or else creativity is discouraging. What can help an ordinary group of kids to build a responsive and interactive audience? Do some technical choices matter? For example, is podcasting promising? Or must we change the context in which youth spend their time? For example, it seems plausible that students who attend a small high school with a coherent academic theme will be more interested in one another's cultural products than students who attend a large "shopping mall" high school with lots of separate cliques. I would like to investigate these topics by looking for online youth products that do and do not have responsive audiences, and asking about the reasons for the differences.

    permanent link | comments (3) | category: Internet and public issues

    March 17, 2006

    a steep popularity curve

    The following may be very elementary, but I'm just trying to figure it out for myself. ...

    Websites often exhibit a pattern in which a few sites are far more popular than the rest. See, for example, this graph by Daniel Drezner and Henry Farrell, which plots the number of incoming links to each blog versus its popularity rank.

    The graph shows enormous inequality. That is a bit counter-intuitive; we might expect that given millions of choices, people would distribute their interest evenly across the whole web. However, we want to know what's going on in the most popular nodes of a network such as the blogosphere. Therefore, we visit those nodes and comment on them, thereby making them even more popular. In other words, network traffic tends to concentrate.

    Clay Shirky thinks that blogs fall in a power-law distribution, so that the line above can be plotted as y=axk. Drezner and Farrell think the line is lognormal. That's better news. A lognormal distribution is less steep, so it suggests that unknown websites sometimes gain popularity; the pattern is not perfectly self-reinforcing. In any case, the data clearly show a huge tilt toward top-ten sites.

    Some factor must cause mass attention to focus on certain targets rather than others. That factor could be quality, but it could also be precedence--older sites will tend to beat newer ones. For instance, I can't believe that Instapundit is orders of magnitude better than the average blog, but it is older.

    Along similar lines, I observed recently that college applicants want to attend competitive universities, so that they can be exposed to other bright students and gain the reputational advantage of a degree from an institution that is known to be hard to get into. Thus we might expect the number of applications to follow a power-law distribution, with a few universities receiving overwhelming interest. But I don't think that's the case. The reason, surely, is that admission to a college (unlike access to a website) is selective. If you want to get into your "best" option, then you must apply to institutions to which you have a reasonable chance of being admitted. If everyone applied to Yale (currently the university with the lowest acceptance rate), then most would waste their application fee. I cannot find a table with the number of applications per institution. But I suspect that the number of applicants/per places does not vary enormously between the most competitive college in America and the nearby branch of the state university, especially if one could control for quality of education. People do tend to prefer already popular institutions; but that preference is countered by their fear of being rejected. [Yale admits 10% of applicants; University of Maryland--many rungs down the ladder--admits about 20%.]

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    March 14, 2006

    trademarks and URLs

    Nowadays, you can pretty much assume a one-to-one correspondence between website addresses and the names of corporations. Take a famous name like Coca Cola, Microsoft, or General Motors, add ".com," and you'll find a website owned by the company. However, I remember the late nineties, when sometimes a URL with a corporate name would belong to a squatter who was hoping that the big company would buy him out. And sometimes the website was used to criticize the company in question--as an exercise of free speech, in my opinion.

    Perhaps the "squatters" were all bought out, or perhaps they were scared away by cease-and-desist letters like this one:

    Your registration of this domain name, which is essentially identical to our client's trademark, is likely to cause confusion, mistake and deception, and hence constitutes infringement of our client's trademarks and copyrights, as well as constituting unfair competition. Your offering the domain name for sale constitutes "cybersquatting," and violates our client's trademark and copyright rights. In view of the foregoing, we demand that you immediately cancel your domain name registration and provide us with copies of the executed cancellation documents.

    I do not understand all the nuances of trademark law, although this site from the Berkman Center is helpful. I can, however, venture some opinions about the public interest:

    1. It is important for people to be able to express and disseminate independent views about major corporations. For that reason, we have free speech rights to use the names of corporations in print and even in prominent places like the titles of books and tv shows. The Internet is a communications medium, built originally with public funds. I see no grounds for giving companies the rights to their own names in URLs any more than they should be allowed to control the titles of books.

    2. It would be possible for someone to infringe a trademark by appearing to be, say, Coca-Cola. If I took the URL cocacola.com and sold soft drinks online, I would be confusing customers and profiting from the company's investment. That would be against the public interest. However, there is no confusion at all if I operate cocacola.com as an anti-soft-drink website. Then clearly I'm not Coca-Cola. If I lower the company's sales by criticizing it, then Coca-Cola must answer my arguments in the public forum.

    3. There seems to be a moral problem with obtaining a website that includes the name of a famous company simply in order to sell it to the firm. This is classic "squatting." You are monopolizing a piece of the commons that you know has special value for one particular entity. I don't think that's admirable. However, I'm not sure that it's worse than other forms of rent-seeking that are perfectly legal, e.g., staking a claim to the best piece of land or building a bridge at the narrowest point on a river and charging tolls. The "other" Peter Levine who owns www.peterlevine.com has inconvenienced me, but he certainly hasn't violated my rights. Besides, if you obtain a URL that includes the name of a corporation and you sell it to the highest bidder, you are offering critics of the company a chance to buy a platform for free speech. If the company places the highest bid, it has paid a premium for fending off critics. Perhaps that's not such a bad thing.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    March 7, 2006

    citizen media

    I'm busy reading a thick pile of applications for J-Lab's New Voices grants. These grants support "innovative community news ventures in the United States"--ranging from electronic magazines produced by identity groups, to podcasting services, to low-power radio, to public databases of value to geographical communities. The proposals are imaginative and various, just as they were last year.

    One of last year's winners is particularly interesting to me. It's the Madison Commons in Madison, Wisconsin--an elaborate community news portal that combines reporting by ordinary citizens with news provided by professionals. The Commons also offers workshops to enhance citizens' journalism skills, and it has developed partnerships with two for-profit print newspapers.

    The Madison Commons can be traced back to a series of discussions in the late 1990s about "community information commons." The Prince George's Information Commons also originated in those discussions, which were funded by Ford. We envisioned a network of such projects at land-grant state universities. See this white paper (PDF) for the whole plan. The Madison Commons is much more robust than our Prince George's County version, but it's nice now to have two nodes--the beginning of a network.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    February 10, 2006

    can the Internet democratize institutions?

    Yesterday, I heard a talk about whether the Internet can help to democratize institutions such as the World Bank and WTO. Proposals for that purpose include posting internal deliberations online, allowing people to file comments by email, or even allowing anyone to edit draft documents on websites ("wikis"). The main response is that the Internet is just a tool; it doesn't change the basic structure of governance. For instance, there are already lots of interesting and wide-ranging discussions within offices and departments of the World Bank. Outsiders could be enabled to participate in those discussions through online tools. But if real decisions are still made rather opaquely by a few individuals, then the online discussion will just mislead outsiders into believing that they have influence. The Internet itself does not change the incentives to share power.

    I agree that the Internet cannot itself change the governance of institutions. However, to a degree, the Internet is changing the institutions that count. Two important examples:

  • Standards have powerful impact on our lives. They are what allow all our computers to interconnect. They can be constructed in such a way as to favor, disfavor, block, conceal, reveal, or otherwise influence all of our online transactions. But standards are not written by the institutions that were considered by political theorists 50 years ago: not by legislatures, courts, diplomats, or regulatory agencies. Sometimes, a person (e.g., Tim Berners-Lee) just writes standards and they proliferate. Perhaps they can be changed by means of political pressure, but not in traditional ways. For instance, no law or government could simply change the standards for email or the Web, which are thoroughly dispersed
  • Ten years ago, what a daily newspaper should do was an important question. Today, it is a less important issue, because newspapers have lost overall market share and clout to various kinds of websites, including blogs. Their market share could drop to zero.
  • [PS: My current grad student Tony Fleming has created a great specialized blog on the competition to be the next UN Secretary General. Tony provides detailed information and news as well as an opportunity to propose questions for the leading candidates. That's a nice use of blog technology to press a major international body to be more transparent.]

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: Internet and public issues

    January 20, 2006

    journalists still matter

    I've come from Ohio to New York City for a meeting on "Media and Communications at the Crossroads: The Role of Scholarship for Media Justice and Reform." At the meeting, my friend Lew Friedland just argued that daily news journalism is still essential to the "media ecology." I'd put the argument as follows:

    It's true that people get news, ideas, and values from their family and friends and from multiple electronic sources, including the web portals of Yahoo and other Internet-service providers (which are regular news sources for 15% of young people); comedy TV (a regular source for 21% of youth); and talk radio (16%). (See this Pew Research Center poll.) However, Yahoo's headlines simply come from wire services--hence, from reporters. Comedy writers get most of their material from daily newspapers. Friedland estimates that 90% of the news stories on local TV come from a local newspaper. Debates in the blogosphere are very often triggered by reported news. Fictional programs like "Law and Order" are inspired by print journalism. Therefore, influential conversations in the kitchen, the office water-cooler, and church often derive ultimately from a newspaper.

    If this is right, then we cannot consider citizen media and other new means of communication and discussion in isolation. They are dependent on the state of conventional, professional journalism--which isn't good. Newspapers are highly profitable but are cutting their staff and budgets for reporting. Two thirds of national journalists believe that bottom-line pressure is hurting news coverage--causing the press to avoid complex issues, to be sloppy, and to be timid. (Source.) Bloggers can complain about newspaper journalists from various angles; they can't replace them.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: Internet and public issues

    January 13, 2006

    concluding thoughts about public media

    Today is the last day of a great meeting on public media, a rich discussion enlivened by presentations of excellent projects (for instance, the National Black Programming Consortium, OneWorld, Global Voices Online, Location One, Public Radio Exchange, and PRI's Open Source.)

    "Public media" comprises all forms of communication that help a democratic public to do its work. The public's work includes deliberating and debating issues of common concern, mobilizing people to participate in formal politics, and creating cultural products that represent and preserve a people's heterogeneous values.

    Three sectors can serve these roles; each has advantages and disavantages:

    1. Corporations (broadcast networks, cable-TV providers, big software companies, newspapers, and publishers) can help the public to do its work. They sometimes meet public demand for news, debate, and information. They apply expertise, talent, and discipline; and they have access to mass markets. However, they generally make more money by providing and advertising commercial goods, rather than encouraging civic and political participation. They can attract the largest audiences by presenting politics in ways that amuse or arouse viewers but make them less likely to participate themselves. Corporate consolidation and market fragmentation make these problems worse.

    2. "Citizen media" means material created and disseminated by individuals or small, voluntary groups: blogs, personal websites, photo galleries on Flickr, podcasts. These "many-to-many" media are far more diverse, open, and innovative than corporate programming. However, there are questions about the citizen media: Can unfunded individuals and networks create products that are more ambitious than short snippets of text, snapshots, and video--for instance, lengthy narrative movies and original news reporting? Even if a few very talented people can create these ambitious products, how can we help those with average skills to participate and find audiences for their work, which will not look professional? And how can we prevent all these individual producers from forming small, insular groups--how can we create a public dialogue?

    3. The traditional "public media" are broadcast stations and producers funded (at least in part) by tax dollars. They have a strong tradition of commitment to the public's interests, although they can certainly be criticized for attracting and serving a narrow slice of the population. In the United States, the organizations in the orbit of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting have some strengths: reputation and public trust, a national network of local institutions, archives of excellent programming, talented employees, and some broadcast spectrum. They have the power to put individuals "on the air," which attracts participation. However, their advantages are diminishing as more competitors arise (including citizen media producers), and as viewers shift from radio and TV to the Internet, where they have far more choice. People are increasingly alienated by the traditional model of station membership, in which you pay dues, receive some goodies, but have no direct impact on programming--and the fundraising drive just drones on. Public broadcasting stations must learn to use their spectrum and other assets to enhance public discussions and cultural collaborations. Their job is to help form publics that demand genuinely public media from all three sectors.

    [Rebecca MacKinnon's summary is on her blog.]

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    January 11, 2006

    promise of public media

    At a meeting tomorrow, I'm supposed to reflect briefly on this question:

    Citizen Media: Enthusiasts claim that new media, with their anti-top-down structure, tend to more democratic. Critics claim that they just make for finer niches of communication and more opportunities for marketing and consumerism. Not enough attention has been paid to how these new ventures can create more public space and invigorate public media. In what ways can these media be used to create a more robust public?

    Since four others are also slated to speak and will probably cover the main points, I think I will focus on kids. I'll say:

    Developmental psychology tells us that civic experiences in adolescence have profound, lifelong effects on civic participation, whereas experiences in adulthood tend not to affect people much. Therefore, if you want to build a public, you must give teenagers positive civic opportunities.

    Creating public media can be an excellent civic experience. Such creativity takes many forms, from community mapping research to positive hip-hop. There is insufficient research on the impact of this work, but my personal experience with kids and some survey data indicate that it can be very powerful pedagogy.

    However, contrary to popular opinion, youth do not take to computers naturally and with ease. Many of the teenagers I have worked with--including many with computers and Internet access at home--are very ignorant about, and intimidated by, computers. At school, they merely learn "keyboarding." Their voluntary use of digital media is completely passive. Besides, the Internet is still largely a written medium, and youth with poor literacy skills cannot participate effectively.

    Therefore, if we're thinking about government support for "public media," I would argue that media courses and extracurricular programs should be funded. The new media may cost less than the old, but they require more human capital. That's where investment is most needed.

    The state is not the only source of support for youth media. Voluntary associations can also teach media skills and motivate young people to participate. I have elsewhere advanced a rather elaborate argument that associations are essential to the development of a robust online commons; the commons cannot be built by individuals alone.

    It's important not to romanticize youth media, since most of what kids produce is not "hot," award-winning material: it's amateurish and even dorky. In general, people (especially kids) want cultural products produced by celebrities. They don't want to hear amateur music if they can easily listen to the world's most famous singer on a digital recording that costs 99 cents.

    However, what people demand depends on whether they are engaged in their own local communities. For instance, in a large, anonymous, internally segregated American high school, most students do not see the student body as a community or themselves as active members. If a few students produce a music video, only their friends will be motivated to watch it. For most other students, the video will be simply an inferior alternative to slickly produced Hollywood shows. However, if a high school supports a genuine community in which students deliberate about common concerns, know one another, and feel they can make a difference, then everyone may be quite interested in a music video that is made by their peers and that investigates local concerns. Thus the small-schools movement (and kindred educational reforms) are actually central to the question of public media.

    This example illustrates a more general theory that Scott Dinsmore made in a comment yesterday: strong civil society, rooted in local communities, may increase demand for locally produced cultural products.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    June 2, 2005

    why the commons is not for communists

    "The commons" is composed of our shared assets: the earth's atmosphere, oceans, and water-cycle; basic scientific knowledge (which cannot be patented); the heritage of human creativity, including folklore and the whole works of Plato, Shakespeare and every other long-dead author; the Internet, viewed a single structure (although its components are privately owned); public law; physical public spaces such as parks and plazas; the broadcast spectrum; and even cultural norms and habits. Some of us believe that protecting and enhancing the commons is a central political task of the 21st century. For different flavors of that argument, see, for example, OnTheCommons, The Tomales Bay Institute, and Lin Ostrom's workshop at Indiana.

    I have suggested that enhancing the commons might be a strategy for increasing equality. If that strategy belonged to the radical left, I would not hesitate to embrace it. However, I don't think that it has much to do with traditional leftist thought. It is worthwhile to distinguish the theory of the commons from Marxism, just for the sake of clarity. I see several fundamental points of difference.

    The commons is not state-centered. Some common assets are completely un-owned (e.g., the ozone layer), and some are jointly owned and managed by associations. Some belong legally to states and are controlled by them: think of Yellowstone. However, it is by no means clear that states are ideal--or even adequate--owners of commons. I realize that some Marxists have also been skeptical of the state--including perhaps old Karl himself, who wished that it would wither away. Nevertheless, a major current in Marxism has been statist, and the commons isn't.

    The commons is only a part of a good society, not the whole. Some anarchists want everything to be treated as a common asset, but most of us simply value the common assets we already have and want to protect them against corporate "enclosure," over-use, and other threats. We have no interest in abolishing either the state or the market; on the contrary, we think that both work better if they can draw appropriately on a range of un-owned assets, from clean air to scientific knowledge.

    The commons supports "negative liberty." Isaiah Berlin famously contrasted the absence of constraints ("negative liberty") from the capacity to do something ("positive liberty"). For example, the First Amendment gives us negative liberty by removing the constraint of censorship, but we don't have positive freedom unless we own a newspaper--or a website. Marx's own ideas about liberty were complex and perhaps ambiguous. But most Marxists have believed that positive liberty is more important than negative liberty--or have even dismissed the latter as a snare and a delusion. Although a commons may enhance positive liberty, what it most obviously provides is negative liberty. If something is un-owned, then there is no legal constraint on our using it. This is both the beauty of a commons and its weakness. The commons, if anything, is a utopian libertarian idea rather than a Marxist one (although some libertarians have forgotten that they are inspired by freedom, not by markets).

    The commons is not (literally) a revolutionary idea. Preserving the commons may take radical action at a time when the oceans are being depleted, big companies are privatizing the software that underlies the Internet, and scientific research is being diverted to produce patented products. However, I don't think we need fundamentally different national institutions from the ones we have today, and therefore I see no need to upset our polity. On the contrary, we ought to revive old and powerful traditions that support the commons. At the global level, I suspect that treaties and trans-national popular movements will be sufficient to protect the commons; there is no need for anything like a global state. It is good that we don't need revolutionary political change, because revolutions almost always go wrong and destroy what they set out to promote.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues , philosophy , revitalizing the left

    May 31, 2005

    community research

    Eleven of my undergaduate students, all from a program called Leaders for Tomorrow, are in residence on campus as of today. They are being paid, and in return they owe 180 hours of community research over the next six weeks. Each student will complete a project of his or her own--but all their work will generate products (articles, maps, video documentaries, etc.) for the Prince George's Information Commons website. The goal is to make that site into a serious venue for information and discussion for a community (pop. 850,000) that has no independent and comprehensive news sources of its own. Once we have enough high-quality material on the site, I'm hoping that it will gain critical mass; other community groups will want to participate as well. Of course, I won't just wait for that to happen. I will actively promote the site as a place for groups to put their work.

    My students are still choosing and planning their projects, but they are likely to interview citizens about their recollections of local history; create maps with health data; develop interactive software for the site that will be open-source and available for others to use in their communities; locate all the music venues in the County and sample snatches of music to create an audio map of the musical life of the community; conduct a content-analysis of the Washington Post's coverage of the County over time; study the potential for free wireless Internet access; and chart changes in particularly interesting places (among other projects).

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    May 27, 2005

    dilemmas of "place"

    I'm at the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, where many people believe in the importance of "place." That means (I think) that they value geographical communities that are distinctive, rather than anonymous and standardized. They believe that citizens ought to devote attention and passion to participating in the governance of such places. In The Public and its Problems (1927), John Dewey wrote that the home of democracy is "the neighborly community. ... We lie, Emerson said, in the lap of an immense intelligence. But that intelligence is dormant and its communications are broken, inarticulate and faint until it possesses the local community as its medium."

    I had been thinking about "place" in a slightly different way since last Sunday, when I watched an excellent anti-violence hip-hop video produced by Bomani Darel Armah and some youth at Martha's Table in Washington. Watching it, I thought: This is very cool. It may not have quite the slick production values of an MTV video, but it's close enough that it could compete for the same audience. There are barriers to distributing it widely--namely, the big media companies that prefer to sell violent and prurient images of young Black people--but even a kid who was pessimistic about reaching a mass audience would enjoy making this video, because it's so good.

    So hats off to Bomani and his talented students--but what about the rest of us: teachers and students who are unlikely to produce something so cool? We can't motivate ourselves (let alone groups of students) by promising to produce excellent hip-hop videos. Yet we need audiences for our students' work, peers who will respect and admire what they've made, even if it doesn't look or sound professional. (See my students' work, for example.)

    The solution is to create videos, news articles, artworks, and other products for communities: for groups of people who know one another and have common experiences and concerns. If a cultural artifact is addressed to a community, then it needn't be excellent to be valuable and valued.

    Affinity groups that are distributed across the country or the globe can function as communities, but only if they are small. If you're a socialist model-train enthusiast or a gay Esperanto-speaker, you may be able to create cultural products for people who know one another even if they don't live nearby. However, society is not sufficiently segmented to allow most of us to join such small affinity groups.

    Places work better. Everyone in a geographical community can have shared experiences and overlapping social networks, simply by virtue of living or working together.

    Unfortunately, many locations aren't "places," in this sense. We should transform large, anonymous buildings, such as standard high schools and shopping malls, into more distinctive and human-scaled institutions. There is real momentum in the movement to make high schools smaller and more communitarian.

    I believe all of the above, yet I'm worried about relying too heavily on very local places as the venues of democracy. Like it or not, the scale of life has grown. Markets, governments, and institutions are big. We can't return to a past of stable urban neighborhoods and small towns, where everyone knows your name. Although high schools should be turned into communities, students will eventually have to take their democratic skills and attitudes into the broader world, where professional expertise, slickness, capital investment, and economies of scale usually triumph. It seems to me that democratic participation at a large scale creates dilemmas that we have not begun to address.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    May 23, 2005

    notes on "free culture"

    These are notes I took during the Free Culture conference last weekend. ... Most participants were relatively young adults who create alternative news and culture. They are also concerned about the legal and economic aspects of mass communications. Most start with some anger against what they perceive as a unified system composed of big media companies and the policies of the US government and international bodies (e.g., media licensing systems, copyright laws) that together sustain social injusticepoverty, racism, patriarchy, and so on. Using music, poetry, and images, they speak an eloquent and fairly sophisticated New Left language of resistance, subversion, an opposition. A repeated visual motif in their presentations is a woman of color with a raised fist. See for example Third World Majoritys website, with its compelling video clips.

    However, several participants believe that a message of opposition and resistance has a limited appeal. Relatively few Americans see themselves as oppressed; and if an organizer makes them angry with eloquent, angry rhetoric, the feeling soon fades. A better way to broaden and sustain motivation is by giving people a positive vision of alternative media that they can themselves participate in creating. In other words, making content is the best route to political mobilization.

    Using available technology, people can create powerful, compelling material. For instance, Downhill Battle is trying to build software that allows anyone to produce and view video programming at virtually no cost. The idea is to enable millions of young people to view TV that they have made for one another, instead of programs created by highly paid professionals at big companies. As one person from Guerilla News Network says, Lets just build ourselves. Lets not wait for public television to come back. Lets not wait for a grant.

    Looking forward, new technology could make young people and other excluded Americans more sophisticated about policy. If the law forbids or frustrates their desire to make and share free content, then they will not have to be mobilized to fight back; they will mobilize themselves--and in a spirit of confidence rather than resentment. Alternatively, the creation of new media technology could actually make policy irrelevant. The law might not be able to block people from creating their own media.

    Questions raised during the conversation:

    1) Will people really prefer alternative media if they have a choice, say, between amateur video clips and MTV? One answer is that they will prefer the alternative stuff, because its better. The most popular blogs, for example, are independently produced; corporate blogs are relatively unappealing. Another answer is that most people will prefer MTV, but its still important to support a minority voice.
    2) Where can funding come from? Theres a lot of dissatisfaction with foundations as the source, because then everyone is on an allowance from powerful organizations. (Plus, foundation funds are pretty limited.) Although most people at the conference are strongly anti-corporate, they are interested in sustainable, independent business models.
    3) Why are the most popular blogs still produced by highly educated white males? The technology is cheap and opennot perfectly so, but as close to perfect as we are likely to see. Neither policy nor technology stands in the way of equality in the blogosphere. Nevertheless, a privileged group tends to dominate. Maybe the demographics will change over time. Or maybe media technology and policy are not the only important reasons for inequality.
    4) Is it most helpful to frame the struggle for free or independent or alternative media in radical leftist terms? I am not hostile to a leftist political conversation in which people consider new media forms as tools to get the social and political outcomes they want. It is also true, however, that many people on the center and the right (including the radical right) do not like the mainstream mass media and would support alternatives. So if the goal is really an open, non-corporate media system, it might make more sense to build a left-right coalition.

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: Internet and public issues

    May 20, 2005

    "free culture" conference

    This evening and over the weekend, I'll be attending a conference on "free culture" organized by Kathryn Montgomery and colleagues at American University. I'll be the least hip person present, since everyone else will be either techno-savvy or into some kind of subversive cultural form (such as political hip-hop), or both. My plan is to listen and learn. There's a pre-conference blog with a list of participants. Facilities have been arranged so that everyone can be online and blog away during the whole meeting, if so inclined.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    May 10, 2005

    using blog software to strengthen a geographical community

    The Prince George's Information Commons is our local attempt to use the new electronic media to support community and civil society. (It's my own small effort at the kind of civic development that I called for in yesterday's post.) I recently installed MovableType on the Commons webpage. That's software that was designed for blogging; I also use it on the page you're reading. The Prince George's Commons doesn't look much like a blog. I've downplayed the date of each contribution, because entries won't be posted all that frequently. Some entries will be very long and labor-intensive. For example, the "oral history of desegregation" that's posted near the top of the homepage took me, two colleagues, and 10 kids most of an academic year to create.

    I turned to blog software because I wanted to build a database into which many people's projects about the County could be entered. On the homepage, you can now see short intros to the latest projects. You can also browse all the current and past work via an intertactive map, a set of timelines, a set of category headings, and a search function.

    All these features are operational in a preliminary way. Thus one can use the map to look for archaeological digs in the County, or use the timeline to find all the projects concerning the 1800s, or look at a category like "work by Northwestern High School students," or search for a phrase like "Mt Rainier." You can also easily post comments on all pages, thus creating a "commons" feel.

    There isn't actually much work on the site as yet. However, I am guiding 17 undergraduate students who are conducting research projects right now; and a group of high school students is completing a large project on nutrition in their community, funded by National Geographic. So the database will grow rapidly. Meanwhile, I'm excited by the idea that I can now approach another professor or a school teacher--or church or neighborhood group--and easily explain to them how they might conduct some kind of research project and contribute the results to the community by putting it on the Commons website.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    April 28, 2005

    New Voices media projects released

    A brief post from California--The New Voices project at the University of Maryland has released a list of the ten micro-news projects that we decided to fund this year. In these projects, citizens (not professional journalists) create high-quality news stories and share them with their communities, using all kinds of novel media. Several of my colleagues on the New Voices Advisory Board have contributed comments about the funded projects.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    April 14, 2005

    a resurgence of community media?

    I spent most of last Monday with my colleagues on the J-Lab New Voices Advisory Board, going through 250 applications for "micro-news" projects so that we could pick the top ten to fund. (J-Lab will announce the winners soon.) I was impressed by the exciting things people are doing today with community blogs, elaborate "content management systems" that allow many citizens to contribute news to local websites, and "podcasting" projects (in which people make audio news files that others can elect to receive automatically over the Internet). Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis (who's also a J-Lab advisor) have been describing many of these projects on their blogs.

    It makes me think that maybe we're seeing a second wave of efforts to use the Internet for civic purposes.

    The last surge occurred in the mid-1990s, when grassroots civic groups often provided free email accounts and helped local citizens and organizations to establish free web pages and discussion forums. For example, in Charlotte, NC, a community computer network called Charlottes Web once offered free email and Web access to at least 6,000 people, including residents of public housing projects and homeless men. Hundreds of local churches and civic groups created pages for the Charlottes Web site with help from volunteer webmasters.

    However, private companies soon offered the same basic services (free email and Website hosting), and the Charlotte Observer started its own Website devoted to community. Local government agencies decided that they no longer needed to fund Charlottes Web, since residents could get all the same goods free of charge from the private sector. When government grants vanished, the bank executives on Charlottes Webs board judged that it was no longer viable. The Observer offered to join forces and was rebuffed by the volunteers at Charlottes Web, who were suspicious of a corporate enterprise. But when Charlottes Web ran out of funds, the Observer bought all of its assets and canceled the free Internet access program. Gradually, the community-oriented, civic, and political aspects of the new commercial site have vanished. Today, it has nothing to say about local nonprofits; and there is no space for citizens to describe their own work. It is a glitzy, professional site, full of advertising.

    Charlottes Web failed because there were insufficient nonprofit resources to produce goods such as email accounts and web hosting that the market can provide more efficiently. This was a typical story in the mid- to late-1990s. However, the new wave of collaborative, community-oriented work uses technologies that have developed since 2000: blogs, wikis, podcasting, and the like. The cost of these activities is lower and the potential may be greater.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    March 10, 2005

    what worked for Dean worked better for Bush-Cheney

    I didn't share in the enthusiasm for Howard Dean's campaign, and partly that was because I feared that the very methods he pioneered would work much better for the right than for the left. Decentralized networks like Dean's are perfect if you have a constituency that's habitually engaged in politics, rich in connections and network ties, able to make financial contributions, and technically savvy. If, on the other hand, much of your constituency is alienated, demoralized, offline, and without money, then big, disciplined institutions like labor unions, conventional parties, and churches are awfully useful.

    Marty Kearns has picked up a telling article by Michael Barrone that describes the Bush-Cheney campaign in the same terms that many leftists used to celebrate Dean. Bush's reelection campaign was, to a large extent, a volunteer-driven, broad-based network. To be sure, Bush raised big bucks--but so did Kerry. The difference may well have been the strength of the decentralized network that supported Republicans.

    Some people argue that new network technologies lower the cost of participation, thereby "empowering" ordinary people. That may be true to an extent, and I hope it is. But participation also requires a civic identity: a sense that one is an effective, responsible, committed, important member of a community. A civic identity is much more common, and much easier to develop, among wealthy professionals than among poor and middle-income people, who have good reasons to doubt that they can be effective, valued participants. Networked technologies rarely create civic identities; instead, they amplify the power of the engaged. Thus the decentralized networks that played roles in the 2004 campaign were dominated by relatively affluent volunteers--as shown by the rise of Dean, the victory of Bush, the impact of the "527" groups, and the irrelevance of labor unions.

    permanent link | comments (4) | category: Internet and public issues

    February 25, 2005

    "trackback spam" (an ethical dilemma)

    Blogs originally formed a "commons," even according to a narrow and technical definition of that term. They were always privately owned, of course. I'm the only person who can post here, because I pay the $9.95 monthly fee. However, the whole array of blogs, the "blogosphere," originally had an un-owned feel. That was because you could visit any site you liked, and any blogger could link to anyone else. The blogs with the most incoming links were the easiest to find through search engines. Therefore, prominence was difficult to buy; it resulted from others' "gifts" of links. Most blogs also permitted visitors to post their own ideas in the "comments" field, thus opening up space for free discussion. Finally, the clever "trackbacks" feature notified bloggers when their posts were discussed on other blogs. For example, when another site links to mine, it often sends a "trackback ping" to let me know; that site is then automatically listed here (under "links to this specific post") so that you can see who has written something in response to me.

    In short, the network of interlinked blogs belonged to no one, it was unaffected by money, and it was open to newcomers. In all these respects, it was a commons.

    All commons are fragile. One form of the "tragedy of the commons" is pollution.

    The first pollution to hit blogs was simply the obnoxious comment--a price we always pay for liberty. Then came a more insidious problem, "comment spam." In order to increase their ranking with Google, pornographers and other bottom-feeding capitalists started placing comments on blogs that were really just links back to their own sites. They used software to place these links automatically. At the low point last summer, I occasionally received more than 100 comments per day that advertised various illegal pornography sites. I removed them quickly, but it was a big nuisance. Finally, by making it more difficult to post comments and by changing some technical aspects of this site, I reduced the problem to a manageable level. Since many other bloggers took similar steps around the same time (or stopped allowing comments altogether), "comment spam" became generally less efficient and profitable.

    So the bad guys discovered "trackback spam." It's simple: they link to specific entries on blogs like mine, thereby getting themselves automatically listed on my site. Again, they use software that places the links automatically and rapidly. I now receive scores of incoming links every day, mostly from gambling sites. These trackbacks are very hard to remove using my blogging software (MovableType 2.64). There are many hundreds scattered through my archives. Although I remove offending trackbacks when I find them, I have left most of them alone because it's just too time-consuming to delete them. A link to a gambling site is not terribly offensive: not like a comment that actually describes some disreputable product.

    However, Henry Farrell and Brad DeLong are now arguing that massive use of trackback spam could spoil the whole blog "commons." (By the way, I just sent them "trackback pings" by linking to them in the previous sentence; but my motives were pure.) If most links have nothing to do with the content or merit of the target site, then we will no longer be able to find popular blogs, or similar ones, by following links. Mechanisms like Technorati, which uses the link structure of the blogosphere to derive interesting information, can be badly damaged by trackback spam. You can even imagine popular sites selling links, which would make prominence a function of money.

    As I've previously noted, the blogosphere never met ideals of equality or meritocracy. However, trackback spam will make things considerably worse--much as email spam has spoiled that medium. Bloggers could fight back by modifying software to prevent trackback spam and removing the spurious links. In my case, that would mean upgrading to more recent software and transferring all my archives--a pretty time-consuming process and one that I could easily screw up.

    If we all took steps to block spam, it would go away. One should always do what one wants everyone else to do. That's the moral argument for taking the time to upgrade my site. The counter-argument is simply that I have other things to do with a whole day. ... Occasionally, when email spam, viruses, comment spam, and other nuisances really get me down, I wonder, "What's so great about the Internet?"

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    January 10, 2005

    funding opportunity for micro-level news online

    The New Voice project launched its website today and issued a Request for Proposals. The proposal deadline is March 17. As the website says,

    New Voices is a pioneering program to seed innovative community news ventures in the United States. Over the next two years, New Voices will help fund the start-up of 20 micro-local, news projects with $12,000 grants; support them with an educational Web site, and help foster their sustainability through $5,000 second-year, matching grants. New Voices is administered by J-Lab at the University of Maryland and supported by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

    Disclosure: I'm on the project's advisory committee and will help read applications.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    January 5, 2005

    associational commons

    In a response to yesterdays post, Mike Weiksner asks me to explain why I am enthusiastic about voluntary associations that create goodsone of the eight forms of commons that I had identified. Im in favor of creating things, because creativity is a valuable and dignified aspect of human life. Although preservation is important, we also need to put our own stamp on the world. But why should we create goods as members of associations? Here is a detailed answer, partly auto-plagiarized from an article of mine thats in the Digital Library of the Commons.

    Let me say, first of all, that associations are not always good. Just because a group is a nonprofit does not guarantee that it is fair, responsible, transparent, or honorable. Nevertheless, there is a great tradition of banding together into voluntary groups to make goods. This is what Alexis de Tocqueville found exemplary in the New World. He is often seen as a theorist of free association, but he especially admired groups that generated goods: The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to diffuse books, to build inns, to construct churches, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. I believe that such associational commons are the heart of civil society and explain a considerable part of its appeal.

    Furthermore, associational commons, while hardly infallible, have several advantages over other forms:

    1. Voluntary associations offer freedom of exit. In contrast, you have to emigrate to escape majority rule in a democracy; and tight communities of birth may keep their members from leaving by imposing serious psychological (and even financial) barriers to exit. Most voluntary associations also allow voice, because if they dont listen to their members, then everyone will quit. (These concepts of voice and exit come from Albert Hirschmans great book, Exit Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States) Related to freedom of exit is pluralism: there are many groups, and we have choice about which to join.

    2. An association can defend itself; it can litigate and lobby to protect the public good of which it is the steward. In time-honored fashion, associations give their members selective incentives (such as free access to the good that they control) in return for support. Thus, for example, a religious congregation may own a beautiful building that creates positive externalities for the broader community: nice views, free concerts, tourist revenues. The congregation may allow anyone who commits to its creed and pays tithes to join. Members then gain special access to the building (for instance, reserved pews and invitations to social events). In return, the congregation gains a bank balance with which it can hire masons if the building is damaged, and lawyers if there is a legal threat. In contrast, a libertarian commons such as the ocean suffers from a classic free-rider problem. Some people and groups benefit from degrading the commons, either by taking too much of it for themselves, fencing parts off as private property, or polluting it. Many people like the commons and wish to see it defended. But no one has a sufficient incentive to pay to defend a good that benefits everyone else as well.

    3. Even though an association is not a state, it can be democratic. It can offer its members opportunities to deliberate about policy and to make collective decisions with fair procedures. In contrast, a libertarian commons is difficult to regulate even if the vast majority of participants feel (and feel rightly) that particular rules should be imposed. Not all associations are democratic, but they allow at least the opportunity to "vote with your feet" by quitting.

    4. An association can publicly articulate a comprehensive set of values. A libertarian commons is free, but liberty may be the only moral norm that it embodies. In contrast, a university, a religious congregation, or a professional association can declare itself the defender of a basket of values, including freedom, public access, truth, sustainability, reliability, and/or decency. In some cases, a government may monitor the association to ensure that it serves its mission.

    5. An association can proselytize, in the best sense of the term. Any commons relies on a demanding set of norms and commitments, such as trust, reciprocity, long time-horizons, optimism about the possibilities of voluntary collective action, and personal commitment.

    People have a civic identity if they have internalized these norms in relation to a particular public good. Put another way, we are civic if we see ourselves as responsible for the good, and if we act accordingly. A civic identity is unlikely to develop automatically. We have to be taught to be civic; we arent born that way. Each generation must transmit to the next a moral concern for common goods. Young people must also be given particular skills, techniques, and operational principles to manage shared goods. As Lin Ostrom argues, At any time that individuals may gain from the costly action of others, without themselves contributing time and effort, they face collective action dilemmas for which there are coping methods. When de Tocqueville discussed the art and science of association, he was referring to the crafts learned by those who had solved ways of engaging in collective action to achieve a joint benefit. Some aspects of the science of association are both counterintuitive and counterintentional, and thus must be taught to each generation as part of the culture of a democratic citizenry. [Ostrom, The Need for Civic Education: A Collective Action Perspective (1998), p. 1.]

    Knowing this, successful associations recruit members with an eye to the future, looking (for example) for young people who can replace their current membership and leadership in decades to come. Associations educate their recruitsand also the general publicabout collective action in pursuit of their core values. If they have narrow constituencies, they may try to broaden their appeal. If they have broad but shallow support, they may try to develop a zealous core.

    Around 2000, I became interested in creating an association to manage a whole new top-level domain, the "dot-civ" realm, for which it would write rules and enforce norms. (See this pdf.) I'm not sure that this was a great idea, but it stands for the more general concept that associations can manage portions of the Internet. For example, it's a great idea to have an organized, very large-scale group blog for a geographical community, like the Bakersfield (CA) Northwest Voice. But many value-judgments have to be made in creating such a news source. I would like to see a voluntary association--rather than a company--in charge.

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: Internet and public issues

    January 4, 2005

    a commons taxonomy

    A commons (or, as the Brits say, "a common") is a shared resource. Some common resources are made by the group that shares them; others are found in nature.* Meanwhile, resources can be shared in a variety of ways. In a libertarian commons, no one owns the assets at all; since there are no property rights, everyone shares. In a communitarian commons, a tight group of people owns a resource jointly. Membership may come as a birthright, as in peasant villages. Members can't sell or trade their rights. Some such communities are very stable and efficient because there are thick bonds of trust and obligation within the group. In a voluntary/associational commons, membership is a matter of choice. One can join and quit at will (although joining may be subject to the group's approval). Whether it's an informal network or a registered 501(c)3, the association jointly owns certain assets. But associations differ from corporations in that ownership is not divisible, proportional to investment, or purchasable. If you quit the association, you simply renounce your stake. Finally, in a democratic commons, the government owns and manages assets and holds them in public trust. Combining the "made"/"found" distinction with the type of governance yields the following taxonomy:

      "found" "made"
    libertarian the oceans, the ozone layer; works of art from the past that are now in the public domain the Internet; open-source software; science, when it reflects R.K. Merton's CUDOS norms
    communitarian coastal fishing villages and other communities that subsist on natural resources; very conservative religious communities rural communities that create and share common pool resources, such as Alpine meadows and water districts; public spaces that belong to tight communities rather than democratic states
    voluntary/associational preservationist organizations that are stewards of some natural or cultural heritage clubs, religious congregations, political parties
    democratic oil reserves, national forests public spaces such as squares and museums; laws, legislative bodies


    All of these forms have advantages and disadvantages. However, I am especially enthusiastic about voluntary/associational commons that make goods. They are the heart of Tocquevillian civil society, in my view. Communitarian commons are too restrictive--and libertarian commons, too fragile--for my taste. In a lot of my scholarly and practical work, I'm trying to give the libertarian commons known as the Internet more of an associational feel.

    *The "made"/"found" distinction is really a matter of degree and can certainly be debated in particular cases. Simon Schama, in Landscape and Memory, argues that almost all "natural" landscapes have actually been deeply influenced by people.

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: Internet and public issues

    December 30, 2004

    the Dutch evade the "resource trap"

    Last week, I participated in a conference on the "ethical aspects of ultrafast communication." It was funded by the Netherlands government as part of a massive technological program. Apparently, most of the Internet is now carried on fiber-optic cables that were laid during the dot-com bubble of the 90s. But the signals have to be switched, stored, and buffered using traditional circuits--with electrons rather than light waves. These switches and other components are slower than fiber-optic cables by several orders of magnitude. The Dutch are now optimistic that they can build "all-light" components that will increase the speed of the Internet by at least 100-fold, thereby expanding opportunities for voice, video, and interactivity.

    The money that they are investing in this research comes from giant natural gas deposits that were discovered around Groningen in 1959. I asked whether the financial returns of the "ultrafast communications project" will go to the Dutch government, universities, specific companies, or to no one at all (if the inventions are put straight into the public domain). No one at the conference was sure. Nevertheless, the investment sounds smart to me.

    There is an interesting contrast with countries like Nigeria, Venezuela, and Iraq, which seem to be much worse off because they have vast deposits of valuable raw materials than they would be otherwise. Countries fall into a "resource trap" when their governments can capture the revenue from raw materials and buy popularity with targeted social programs, while also maintaining advanced police states. The extraction of raw materials does not create many jobs or allow workers to form large unions, but it does bolster the state. Since good government is the key to economic growth, and natural resources often support bad governments, they can be a curse. But not in countries like the Netherlands, Norway, and Iceland, where excellent democratic government and an engaged citizery predated the discovery of oil or gas. In those cases, free resources are--as you might expect--a good thing.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    December 16, 2004

    is Google a "commons"?

    This was a topic of heated debate at the American Library Association meeting that I attended in October. It's all the more interesting now that Google has promised to help digitize the entire contents of several major research libraries.

    The answer to the literal question is "no." Google cannot be a commons because it is a corporation. A commons belongs to everyone in a community or to no one at all, whereas the ownership of a corporation is limited and proportional to an individual's financial investment. However, the interesting question is whether the whole web, when navigated using Google's search engine, is a commons. The web doesn't belong to anyone--or we could say that everyone owns it. Its elements are privately owned and controlled, but it's quite easy for anyone to add a new page to the pool. While access to (and use of) some webpages is restricted, most of the web has an open feel, just like a classic physical commons.

    But what happens when we use Google to find our way through the web? The Internet itself may be unlimited, but the list of top-10 results for any given Google search is very limited and is under the company's control. Google uses a proprietary database and search algorithm to generate results. In principle, Google's management could block you from searching at all, or could promote a favored site to #1 for money--or for totally capricious reasons. The Google search algorithm is secret (necessarily, or else people would manipulate their websites to gain higher ranking). Google sells advertising space for cash.

    None of these features sounds compatible with a "commons." On the other hand, Google has chosen to create a space with many commons-like features. To the best of my knowledge, Google still ranks sites proportionally to the number of links from other sites. A link is a kind of gift or vote. A large number of incoming links does not indicate quality or reliability, but it does indicate popularity within the community of website-owners. Google's search results mirror that popularity. To be sure, money can buy popularity, yet there are many cheap sites that have become major nodes on the web.

    In theory, Google could start charging for placement (not only for the advertisements that appear on the right side of the screen, but also for basic search results). However, that would be a risky move for the company, since its popularity comes from its commons-like feel. Besides, Google's capacity to destroy the commons does not prove that there is no commons on its site right now. Every commons is subject to destruction and/or control. The Alaska wilderness is a commons (I think), yet the state and federal government could suddenly decide to charge large fees for access. Thus the question is not whether Google must create and preserve a commons, but whether it has done so to date.

    Some people feel that corporations are fundamentally incompatible with a commons. They may be attracted to the idea of the commons in the first place because they are hostile to corporate capitalism. It's worth asking, however, exactly what's wrong with corporations. Do they promote consumerism? Google is a portal to many political, civic, spiritual, and environmental pursuits as well as e-commerce. Are corporations undemocratic? Google has made money by using a fairly democratic system for ranking its search results. Its system is not perfectly equitable, but neither is any conceivable government. Are corporations greedy? Sometimes private vice brings public benefit.

    To me, the best question is: Compared to what? Google has created a tenuous kind of commons, with secret rules and concentrated power. But democratic governments tend to create commons with similar problems. And anarchic commons, such as the high seas, are easily destroyed by individuals' greed. I'd say that Google is about as good a large-scale commons as we have seen, although we'll have to keep a close eye on it. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, even in the 21st century.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    December 14, 2004

    micro-local news

    Free advice ... Today I met with the Washington Center for Internships to discuss possible ways to evaluate their program, and then went to Streetlaw, Inc. for their winter Board meeting. (Streetlaw provides a textbook, training, institutes, and other support for teaching about law and politics in schools.) Finally, I joined my colleagues on the Advisory Board of the J-Lab New Voices Project . Thanks to the Knight Foundation, New Voices will be able to fund "20 micro-local news projects" in which citizens generate information, commentary, and discussion for their communities. J-Lab, the Institute for Interactive Journalism, will also collect or create software and other support that anyone will be able to use for interactive or community news.

    We discussed some existing projects and products that exemplify community news on the Web. Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine was the source for most of these references. (On his blog, he says that he was in DC to meet with his CIA handlers, but they must have got to him later in the day.)

  • In Bakersfield, CA, residents of the northwestern part of the city produce all the content for an online newspaper that is also printed and distributed (with paid advertising). Essentially, everyone in the community can post blog entries with news, announcements, and opinions. However, thanks to clever use of iupload software, individual posts are classified in appropriate ways, producing a site that looks more like a newspaper than a blog. Simple announcements appear on a calendar. Crime reports go on a map. Sports news would be classified under "sports." Anything that an individual writes is also saved under her or his name, thus producing a traditional blog for each contributor. And a chief blogger puts the best posts on the main page.

  • Journalism students at Northwestern University quickly built an impressive community news site for Skokie, Il (GoSkokie), for which they and citizens produce content.

  • A "wiki" is a webpage that anyone can edit online. Wikipedia has turned into an amazing repository of information, thanks to untold thousands of volunteer contributors. Apparently, the same folks are working on a "newswiki" that could be used to describe events in a community. Anyone could add (or delete) text.

  • MIT hosts three community news sites for and by retirees, known as "silver stringers." The same format has been borrowed by groups abroad and by youth groups.
  • (See also Leslie Walker's recent Washington Post story on Bakersfield and GoSkokie.)

    permanent link | comments (3) | category: Internet and public issues , press criticism

    November 26, 2004

    justice in industry standards

    This is a topic that I would write about if I suddenly had three free months and could actually study the facts of the matter. Lacking those months (but having a blog), I hereby offer my untotored thoughts ...

    For centuries, companies and entrepreneurs have negotiated voluntary standards that spread throughout industries, so that (for example), you can buy a lightbulb and know that it will fit into your lamp back home: the sizes and shapes are standardized. Traditionally, the precise choice of a standard has been arbitrary--it doesn't matter how many milimeters wide lightbulbs are, as long as they're the same. To the extent that traditional standards raise issues of public concern, the main ones are safety (a really dumb standard can be dangerous) and antitrust (incumbent industries can deliberately create standards that are unnecessarily hard for competitors to replicate).

    In the new world of networked computers, antitrust remains a concern, but there are many additional issues of great importance. Since standards are what allow computers to communicate and software to run on multiple "platforms," they must be very detailed. It is in the standards process that the key design choices are made that shape email, webpages, document formats, and digital movies. Just for example, I once heard Tim Berners-Lee speak in Washington, and he said that he wished he had written the standards for the World Wide Web so that no information could be transmitted from visitors to owners of websites. That choice would have prevented privacy violations, but it also would have blocked many useful functions, including virtually all e-commerce. So I suspect we're better off with the standards that Berners-Lee actually created. In any case, his choice to allow two-way communications had enormous consequences.

    Market libertarians may view any standards as acceptable, since they result from voluntary negotiations. But even free-marketers should worry when monopoly companies dominate the standards process. Civil libertarians should want standards to protect constitutional values like privacy and free expression. Following Lawrence Lessig, they should view computer "code" as parallel to legal "code"; either one can abridge freedoms. Communitarians may see standards as opportunities to protect community interests, for example, by preventing viruses and terrorists' messages from being encoded in picture files. Strong democrats may distrust a powerful process that isn't overseen by elected governments. Advocates of the commons may view voluntary standards (which are "contributed" by hard-working code-writers) as a form of common property, except when standards are designed to protect narrow economic interests. And all observers should be interested that today's standards often pay explicit attention to two issues--disabilities and privacy--but not to any other normative questions.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: Internet and public issues

    November 24, 2004

    progress toward an information commons

    Since 2002, some colleagues and I have been working slowly to create an "information commons" for Prince George's County, MD. A real information commons would be a voluntary association devoted to creating public goods and putting them online. These goods might include maps, oral histories, historical archives, news articles, discussion forums, research reports, calendars, and directories. If community groups preferred to maintain separate websites, they could link to features on the commons site and thus "distribute" the commons across the web. The association would also lobby locally on issues like the "digital divide" and broadband access; and would provide training and support. Information commons in various communities would form networks and share software.

    So far, the tangible products of the Prince George's Information Commons are a modest website whose best feature is an oral history, and a series of articles defending the concept of a commons.

    We decided not to start by creating an association, because we were afraid that community people wouldn't see the need for such a body or the advantages of joining. Instead, we hoped to create enough exciting and useful content on one site that it would draw traffic and interest. We would then ask participants if they wanted to "own" the site formally by creating a non-profit governing board.

    Progress has been slow for two main reasons.

    First, we have chosen to work with high school students, and for the most part ones who are not currently on the college track. This has been extremely rewarding work, but it's also a relatively slow way to generate exciting content. For instance, students spent a whole summer gathering excellent audio recordings that documented immigration into the County, but we haven't figured out how to use that material online. It sits on a CD. Likewise, the kids took a very long time collecting information for "asset maps," and the result was a relatively small set of incomplete (and now dated) maps.

    Despite the slowness of this approach, I intend to continue to invest the majority of my discretionary time in the high school, because I find it extremely satisfying to work directly with kids.

    The second obstacle is financial. We have had great difficulty raising money for the core concept of an "information commons." Instead, we have raised funds from foundations with specific interests in, for example, history or geography. As a result, we haven't had money or time to develop the commons itself. Instead, we have lurched from one project to another.

    Ideally, we would always be busy with three tasks: 1) teaching high school (or middle-school) students to create digital products for the website; 2) working with college classes, churches, and other adult groups to help them to create content; and 3) installing and managing interactive features for the website itself, such as an open blog, a "wiki," or a map that visitors could annotate. These features would have to be carefully monitored or else they would be vulnerable to spammers and cyber-vandals.

    To date, we have only had sufficient resources to do the first of these tasks, and that only on a small scale. Recently, I've been thinking hard about the second job: recruiting independent groups to produce their own content. Based on some recent conversations, I am optimistic that by the spring we will have three groups feeding content into the commons site: the high school class, a college class, and possibly a group of teachers.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues , a high school civics class

    November 17, 2004

    trust and reliability online

    I recently published an article in which I described the following "troubling example":

    In June 2004, if you went online to learn about cholesterol, you might have typed that word into Google, the worlds most heavily used search engine. Google would have quickly returned a list of more than five million websites containing the word cholesterol.

    The first ten websites would appear immediately before you; the remaining five million would take progressively more time and patience to find. The eighth result would be a page within MedlinePlus. This is an elaborate website created by the National Library of Medicine, a department of the United States government that has an annual budget of US $250 million, a mandate from Congress to inform the public about medical issues, more than a century of experience, and a highly professional staff of scientists and librarians. ...

    Somewhat higher up on the Google listing, at number five, was a site written by Uffe Ravnskov , MD and PhD, who described himself as the spokesman of THINCS, The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics. His site announced: The idea that too much animal fat and high cholesterol are dangerous to your heart and vessels is nothing but a myth. If you think this is written by another internet crackpot, take a look at Dr. Ravnskovs credentials and the reviews of his bookwhich was for sale on the site.

    I am not competent to judge whether Dr. Ravnskovs claims about cholesterol or his own credentials are accurate. However, it is remarkable that an individual with a low-budget websiteregistered to the .nu domain, which belongs to the New Zealand protectorate of Niue in the South Pacificshould be able to beat the National Library of Medicine of the United States in the competition for prominence on Google.

    Dr Ravsnkov has, understandably, sent me an email complaining of his treatment in my article. I went back to his personal page and the Thincs website. To me, they raise interesting, complex, and ambiguous issues. Indeed, I meant to explore those issues in my article, although I confess that my tone was disparaging toward Dr. Ravnskov. These are the points that "trouble" me:

    1) None of us can tell directly whether "animal fat and high cholesterol are dangerous to your heart and vessels." We all rely on trusted authorities. People like me are completely dependent on others' expertise. But even a scientific specialist in this field would have to trust the instruments he or she used and the reliability of past research. So the issue is not whether Dr. Ravnskov's argument is right (I'm not qualified to judge that), but rather whether we should trust him or the medical orthodoxy that he is challenging.
    2) In general, there are some good reasons to trust medical orthodoxy. Scientific method makes sense. Randomized, double-blind, clinical trials really are the "gold standard" of research. Not only that, but academic and government-paid researchers are supposed to work for institutions with integrity that reward truth and not profit. It worries me that anyone can create a website and say anything at odds with the medical establishment, and potentially convince lots of people to ignore the standard advice.
    3) On the other hand, it is perfectly plausible that all those white-coated folks at NIH could be wrong about a particular topic. "Group-think" could have set in. Worse, they could have been more or less corrupted by the pharmaceutical companies that are making huge amounts of money from anti-cholesterol drugs. Newspapers and medical journals are full of distressing stories about distorted medical research.
    4) Dr. Ravnskov's websites look a little amateurish, and they advertise a book that he is selling. They list articles and other books in support of his position; but many are not peer-reviewed. Facts like these are sometimes taken as signs that a website is untrustworthy. However, some of the articles he cites are peer-reviewed. More importantly, the conventional signs could be misleading. Maybe Dr. Ravnskov's sites look amateurish because they are low-budget; and they are low-budget because he has integrity. Maybe MedlinePlus isn't more reliable, just more slick.
    4) I feel that if I were worried about cholesterol (which I'm not, especially), then I could look into the issue and decide which sources are really credible. I could take the time to read the links on Medline and on Dr. Ravnskov's page, and I believe I could make decent judgments. However, I (arrogantly) assume that I have better-than-average skills in the interpretation of research. How should we tell a 9th-grader to sort out reliable and unreliable claims?

    All of this underlines the deep importance of ethics in medical research. I would quickly dismiss a critic of medical orthodoxy if it weren't for all those stories about financial conflicts-of-interest.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: Internet and public issues

    October 31, 2004

    discussing the commons

    Im in the Cerritos Public Library, waiting for the second day of the Information Commons meeting. There are several other bloggers here who are covering the discussions. Eli Edwards, who posts great comments on my blog and has a terrific one of her own, is posting detailed notes. Jessamyn West, who has been running librarian.net since 1999, is here, but she has been deferring to Eli and Fred Stutzman to blog about the conference. Rick Emrich, the founder of Commons Blog , is also here. I dont go to a lot of techie conferences, so it tickles me that posts are appearing online as people talk.

    The library is astounding. Its new and cost the city $47 million. Disney designers from nearby Anaheim helped to plan it, and its a kind of public-sector Disneyland. The childrens section, for example, contains a full-sized Tyrannosaurus Rex and a huge salt-water tank with sharks and a coral reef. Theres a lighthouse big enough to sit inside and various high-tech gizmos such as tv screens that show the visiting kids in various exotic settings. There are also books.

    Each section is themed in similar ways. Theres a baronial, gothic library with vaulted stone ceilings, leather chairs, leather-bound books, and a fake electric hearth. The large Asian book section is supposed to look like Shanghai circa 1930 (when Indiana Jones visited).

    I wish I could take my kids here; they could have fun for a whole day. Im impressed that a smallish community would put so many resources into a public facility devoted to learning (whatever you may think of their taste). However, this is a conference about the commons, and it strikes me that the Cerritos Library is almost antithetical to the ideal of a commons. The model here is a democratic-consumerist one. The city hired expert librarians to spend $47 million of public funds in the private sector to purchase tailored experiences for individual patrons. Because everything is finished to a high sheen, planned to the last millimeter, and high-tech, there are few ways for citizens or groups to contribute. In fact, the typical urban public librarywith its dirty, peeling, whitewashed walls and aging collectionsmay actually make a better commons. Often the walls are covered by childrens art, the new purchases are funded by bake sales, and the special events are organized by neighbors. (My wife, for example, runs a weekly "Children's Book Bingo" event at our local library every summer.)

    I dont think its fair that Cerritos should have a $47 million library unless the libraries in South Central Los Angeles are also well equipped, which they probably arent. However, paradoxically, the people of this affluent community may have bought themselves out of the commons and deprived themselves of the satisfactions of public work.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: Internet and public issues

    October 29, 2004

    to California

    I'm on my way to Cerritos, CA (in eastern Los Angeles County), where the new public library has won awards as a model community center or "information commons." This weekend, the American Library Association is holding a conference there. The subject is the commons, and I look forward to discussing intellectual property, the role of information in communities and civil society, the physical design of libraries, the place of youth in public libraries, and related topics. I will have a chance to present our work building a (strictly virtual) information commons for Prince George's County, MD.

    The Cerritos conference is mentioned on Commons Blog, where there's also a relevant bibliography.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    October 26, 2004

    medical information online

    LIBRES (Library and Information Science Electronic Journal) has just published an article of mine entitled "What Should be the Role of Government-Supported Medical Websites?" I begin by noting that low-budget medical websites with crackpot advice can sometimes score higher than MedlinePlus on Google. MedlinePlus is a major product of the National Library of Medicine, which has an annual budget of $250 million and is supported directly by the National Institutes of Health. NIH, in turn, has a budget of $20 billion and employs 18,000 people, including 5-10 Nobel Laureates at any given time. The openness of the Internet means that official, white-coated medicine (as embodied by NIH) is losing its monopoly--and that is not necessarily a good thing.

    I ask whether we should take various modest steps to push Web-searchers toward official portals like MedlinePlus. I conclude that we should, although this is not an easy question, since government sites have been known to manipulate medical information for political reasons, and drug companies have excessive power over the medical profession.

    Peter Suber immediately noticed my article. Peter is probably the world's leading advocate of open-access publishing. Material is open-access if it is "digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions." LIBRES is an open-access publication: peer-reviewed, but available free on the Internet. Therefore, Peter monitors it. I asked him how he could track so many sites so efficiently, and he told me that he uses WebSite Watcher to "crawl" through 100 sites each day and notify him of all changes.

    Peter says he agrees that government websites like MedlinePlus are great, but they would be better if NIH required all of the work it funded to be open-access. There is a serious proposal to make that happen: see Peter's FAQ page.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: Internet and public issues

    October 25, 2004

    three paths to civic renewal

    Right now, my email inbox contains announcements of three important civic initiatives:

  • AmericaSpeaks has put together a document that explains how one could organize a deliberation involving one million Americans. Using large face-to-face meetings, small informal gatherings, and online forums, citizens would simultaneously discuss a single topic, reach conclusions that would be transmitted to policymakers, and then turn into an active constituency to support their recommendations. In 2002, Senators Hatch and Wyden introduced a bill that would authorize a national discussion of health care reform. That idea prompted AmericaSpeaks to convene a group of experts to work out a fairly detailed blueprint for coordinated deliberations on any topic of national importance. (The AmericaSpeaks document is not yet online, but I will forward a copy of the .pdf on request.)

  • Nancy Kranich, a former president of the American Library Association and a friend of mine, has written a comprehensive report about the "Information Commons." It is now on the Brennan Center website in an attractive format. Nancy notes that the Internet could allow a vast expansion of the fundamental ideal traditionally championed by public libraries: free, shared information. But digital media also create the risk that intellectual property will be over-protected and restricted. She documents ways that libraries are protecting open access and building "information commons" for the digital era. These commons are not only storehouses of knowledge; they also support communities and social networks and thus enhance civil society. She concludes with policy recommendations to enhance the commons.

  • My colleagues at J-Lab, the Institute for Interactive Journalism at the University of Maryland, have announced $1 million in grants for "community news ventures." Nonprofits and educational institutions may apply for funding to "help create new types of self-sustaining community media projects." The source of J-Lab's funds is the Knight Foundation, also a major benefactor of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, in which I'm heavily involved.
  • Community news services housed in local nonprofits, "information commons" based in libraries, large-scale deliberations on important issues ... this could be the beginning of a true civic revival.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    October 21, 2004

    the Internet and youth civic engagement

    The Summit Collaborative's Marc Osten and Katrin Verclas have written an important new paper entitled "The Power of the Internet to Engage a Generation."

    The paper provides a bold vision for how to use digital networks to encourage civic participation--although the authors note that "technology alone will most often not motivate young people to become deeply engaged. Any initiative that relies upon technology as a tool for engagement requires complementary offline components as well."

    Many young people have grown up online and "staked out the Internet as an alternative space for socializing, communicating, and information sharing--away from the eyes of parents and other adults." The voluntary network of the Net fits many young people's "anti-institutional" ideals. In some ways, their values are new (radically libertarian), but in other ways, their "ideas are a return to earlier concepts of grassroots politics. ... David Weinberger suggests, 'That is why the web, for all its technological newsness and oddness, feels so familiar to us. And that is why it feels like a return even though it is the newest of the new. The web is a return to the values that have been with us from the beginning."

    However, the potential of the Web for reinvigorating citizens' networks is partly unfulfilled. Various advocacy groups use data mining and tailored messages to mobilize people, but these techniques (even when entirely well-intentioned) can be manipulative and can segment people into narrow, unreflective groups. There are tools for "augmented social networks" that give users more flexibility and discretion to find others with similar--or different--views and to develop reputations for tustworthiness. However, these tools tend to be proprietary, which means that they don't work together and they cannot be adapted for new social uses.

    Thus Osten and Verclas call for a new suite of open-source tools for strengthening diverse networks among young people. These tools would help youth to create discussion spaces and self-publish; to identify other people by interest; to contribute to large stores of data (such as maps); and to meet one another offline. Osten and Verclas also discuss the need to identify and support youth who are serving as leaders or "network nodes."

    A longer paper could go into much more concrete detail, but this is a great outline for further discussion.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    September 30, 2004

    art as intellectual property

    Emboldened by the fact that Tongues of Fire is downloaded from this site 25 times a week, I'm thinking of putting another, more ambitious work of fiction online. I'd like to illustrate it and otherwise add elements of "multimedia." The perfect illustrations (since I cannot make my own) would be certain Old Master drawings by the likes of Guercino and Domenichino. Unfortunately, there are remarkably few such images online, because the owners of the originals tend to refuse permission to disseminate them electronically. Even public museums usually block people from photographing their collections unless we agree not to sell or give away the images we make. For the same reason, the countless beautiful illustrations in my University's Art Library are not to be copied. I have been looking at old books--volumes published more than 75 years ago--that reproduce baroque master drawings. They contain many beautiful images that would fit my purposes perfectly. The books are in the public domain, but what about their illustrations? Does the Queen of England own the rights to a photograph taken of one of her drawings in 1900? What about an etching or mezzotint that reproduces a drawing that she owns?

    I am trying to obey the law, but only because I don't want to encounter problems later. From a moral point of view, I find it outrageous that owners of beautiful objects, especially public libraries and museums, should prevent their electronic reproduction. As a result of this short-sighted and selfish policy, an extraordinarily small proportion of great art can be found on the World Wide Web.

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: Internet and public issues

    August 27, 2004

    the Internet & civil society

    Way back in 2001 ("Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive"), I wrote an article about the Internet and civil society. That piece has been reprinted in five versions, each updated and edited for a new occasion. The latest edition appeared just today: "The Internet and Civil Society," in Verna V. Gehring, ed., The Internet in Public Life (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), pp. 79-98.

    I argue that the Internet is potentially good for civil society, but we need to worry about five problems:

  • inequality (I've updated statistics on the digital divide)

  • thin social bonds

  • threats to public deliberation (mostly concerns about "cyber-balkanization")

  • rampant consumer choice, and

  • privacy violations
  • The rest of the book is a useful contribution to debates about the political and social impact of the Internet. It's ideal for college courses, since it's small and priced at $16. It is a product, by the way, of my main institutional home, the Institute for Philosophy & Public Policy, which among other activities is generating a series of inexpensive paperback anthologies on public issues.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    August 26, 2004

    taking stock of blogs (2004)

    Blogs are clearly the hot medium. They have scale: Technorati is tracking 3.6 million of them, and there may be many more. No one knows the size of the audience, but the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 3% of Americans with Internet access read someone elses web log or blog on a typical day, and 17 percent have ever done so. (These survey figures were collected in February.) Since more than 60% of American adults have Internet access, that translates into roughly 3.6 million daily viewers in the United States.

    (Its just a coincidence that the best count of the world's blogs, 3.6 million, currently equals the number of US daily viewers, but this does suggest something important about the medium. It's "many-to-many." In contrast, the number of TV viewers is enormously larger than the number of TV channels.)

    Blogs have impact. Its hard to measure their effect on the real world, but (just for example) many believe that Trent Lott fell because of commentary in the blogosphere. We do not live in a time of very impressive social movements (at least in the US), but the ones weve gotamong them, rigorous libertarianism, anti-globalization, and Christian Conservatismhave made effective use of blogs.

    Blogs have limitations, too. They do not generate new information or policy ideas so much as they comment on the raw material generated originally by reporters, TV news crews, government agencies, advocacy groups, think tanks, and academics. The political blogs are mostly concerned with national and international issues, even though many important decisions are made at the local and state levels. Blogs may strengthen or even create networks within national and international affinity groups, but I do not know of cases in which blogs have enhanced social capital at a neighborhood, municipal, or regional scale.

    Blogs are not institutionalized in conventional ways. There is no business plan that allows them to generate enough revenue to pay salaries. Some organizations have created blogs (notably, newspapers, magazines, and political campaigns), but these groups obtain their revenues from other sources.

    The lack of institutionalization could mean that blogs will turn out to be something of a fad or bubble. Im sure some form of regular self-publishing will persist, but 3.6 million blogs could turn out to be the high water mark. Bloggers are competing for a fairly small number of eyeballs right now and have to deal with unpleasant phenomena like comment spam. The word blogwhich is exceptionally uglymay fade and begin to connote a fashion of the early 2000s.

    I can also imagine that blogs will be institutionalized, and the most influential ones will have their own salaried writers, support staffs, and stable audiences. Or, finally, I can imagine that blogs will persist and flourish without institutionalization, as purely voluntary and individual projects. That would prove that the Internet really is different: more of a large-scale voluntary commons than anything we have ever seen before.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: Internet and public issues

    August 4, 2004

    comment spam

    (Warning: if you have a blog of your own, you already know what I'm about to say, and this may be boring.) My blog usually gets hit four or five times a day by "spam." People post ads, often for extremely unsavory products, as comments. Their motive is to generate links to their own sites so that they will rank higher on Google searches. Spammers use software to place their comments, so that they can post many in a short time. Last night, I was hit by more than 100 separate comments, all advertising a particularly disgusting and illegal form of pornography. These comments are difficult to remove with MovableType--it takes five clicks plus a certain amount of waiting to get rid of each one. MoveableType allows you to block particular computers from posting comments, but spammers now hide their identity by using fake IP addresses. Every one of last night's spam comments had a different address.

    There are solutions. For example, you can change the technical structure of your site so that it's much harder for programs to "know" automatically how to post comments. This kind of change is not easy for someone like me to make, however--it would take me at least an afternoon, and I would probably mess it up at first.

    The other kind of solution essentially involves restricting public uses of one's site. I could, for example, block all comments on old entries. However, I like the serious remarks that periodically appear on archived posts. I could get rid of comments altogether and tell people just to email me. But that barrier might discourage participation. So it's a dilemma, and it exemplifies the dark side of all open networks.

    If any spammer reads this (and I'm sure they won't), I would make one request. If you are going to advertise some kind of exploitative sex involving minors as a response to one of my earnest comments about civility or civic education, please don't compound the insult by writing "Nice site," or "Good point" in the comment field. It drives me nuts.

    permanent link | comments (3) | category: Internet and public issues

    July 26, 2004

    should schools teach "media literacy"

    I owe a paper on the reliability of online medical information. I'm thinking of the following title: "Misinformation in Online Medical Information: What is the Role of Schools?" My answer would be: Schools should have as small a role as possible, because we have already loaded too many responsibilites on them, and they are not well positioned to teach "media literacy." An outline follows.

    I. There is an argument that schools should devote time and other resources to teaching students information literacy so that young people will learn not to be misled by false online information, especially concerning health. The argument goes like this.

    1. False and misleading health information is common online, because anyone can post anything he likes. In some cases, false information is just as prominent as accurate information. 2. Cognitive psychology demonstrates that people often believe false information. They rely on heuristics to determine reliability, but these heuristics often fail and can expose people to deliberate manipulation. In one study, people who were already familiar with a topic learned less than people who were not familiar with it, suggesting that we have difficulty adding to or correcting an existing store of beliefs. Readers tend to believe documents that contain many claims more than documents with few claims. Unfortunately, some highly misleading websites provide long lists of statements. Likewise, audiences tend to believe claims that seem to convince many other people. On the Internet, large numbers of people believe all kinds of false information, supporting one another. It is also possible to exaggerate public interest in a website, even by such a simple mechanism as inflating the numbers on a hit counter."

    3. Believing false health information has costs for the individual and for society. For example, SARS protective kits were prominently advertised online in 2003 as a way to prevent Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. They would not work. Purchasing and using such kits would waste money and could even increase the chance of infection and transmission. 4. It is probably more important than ever that average people have correct beliefs about health, because: the health system is less paternalistic and gives patients more choices; patients are required to manage their own treatment of such chronic conditions as diabetes and high blood pressure; pharmaceutical companies are more aggressively advertising their products; and there is a larger volume of (often conflicting) information and advice available about many conditions. 5. Since people with more education are better at avoiding misleading information, the widespread prevalence of misinformation may increase social inequality.

    6. We should not (and probably cannot) reduce the amount of false information online by censoring it or removing it from the Web. The Internet is, and ought to remain, an open platform without centralized control.

    7. Children may be especially prone to believing misinformation. 8. Children are a captive audience in schools and can be required to study information literacy. 9. Children and adolescents use the World Wide Web very heavily to do standard kinds of assigned research, so they will have to be taught information literacy if they are going to do good work in their regular courses. 10. For all these reasons, teachers and school librarians should deliberately teach students to distinguish between reliable and unreliable online information.

    II. There are recommended pedagogies for Information Literacy

    1. For example, students can be taught to look for lists of telltale signs that websites are untrustworthy. 2. Other approaches ?

    III. However, there are serious limitations to teaching information literacy in primary and secondary schools.

    1. Good education would not just teach students to distrust what they see online. Surveys show increasing levels of blanket distrust, especially among young people who (for instance) widely view all newspapers as untrustworthy. Blanket distrust is just as harmful as total credulity. In the health context, for example, someone might decide to distrust all nutritional information because advice seems to conflict, and then refuse to take such basic steps as reducing fat intake. So information literacy is partly a matter of teaching students that they should trust some sources. 2. Misinformation is a serious and immediate problem among people who have long since left school. Indeed, most subjects in a sample of older, well-educated, affluent Americans showed poor comprehension of health information. A school-based strategy cannot help these people. 3. Schools are being asked to address a huge range of social problems and inequities, ranging from illiteracy to a dearth of scientists and engineers, from unemployment to violence and teen pregnancy. We should not lightly pile on an extra responsibility. 4. Thus we should do everything we can to reduce the burden on schools.

    IV. Fortunately, there is an alternative: actively promoting reliable sources of online information

    1. For example, in the health area, the U.S. government funds MedlinePlus as a portal to reliable health information. 2. To the extent that health and science teachers and school librarians teach information literacy, they ought to tell students to use MedlinePlus (and why). However, they will not be able to reach most students with this message. 3. Therefore, the government should promote MedlinePlus. It should advertise the portal, particularly on those search engines that accept money in return for ranking sites more prominently. It should also spend adequate money to keep the site attractive, usable, and comprehensive.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    June 7, 2004

    public-interest groups and communications policy

    I'm delighted to announce that a student of mine, Tina Sherman, passed her dissertation defense today. I don't want to "scoop" Tina by revealing her findings. However, she interviewed about two thirds of the leaders of all the self-described "public interest" groups that work in the fields of communications and information technology. These are the groups that lobby or litigate--ostensibly in the interests of the public--on issues like the number of TV stations that a company can own, the availability of licenses for local, "low-power" radio stations, the basic rules governing the Internet, the number of years that copyright protection lasts, and the amount of money that we spend equipping schools with computers. Tina also interviewed several foundation executives who fund these advocacy groups. Her research portrays one fairly typical subset of the "public interest community," roughly 30 years after Ralph Nader, John Gardner, and their peers created the first of these groups. The results are important and troubling.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    April 26, 2004

    a blog appears in the Washington Post

    The Post's "Outlook" section is completely devoted to opinion articles. Yesterday, the Outlook editors chose to reprint a portion of a blog. They didn't use the word "blog." Instead, the article began:

    Raphael Cohen-Almagor, director of the Center for Democratic Studies at the University of Haifa, is a visiting scholar this year at Johns Hopkins University's Institute of Policy Studies. He writes a monthly newsletter about Middle East politics that he sends to 300 people in 23 countries. It also appears on the Web at almagor.blogspot.com. His comments in the newsletter about Israel's recent assassination of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin prompted a spirited exchange with several recipients. The following excerpts are published with the writers' permission.

    Anyone who is familiar with blogs will recognize the style of the entries that follow. They are too articulate to be transcriptions of unrehearsed speech, yet they are informal. At least some of the participants appear to know each other, and all adopt a familiar tone ("Hi Steve"). The writing is personal and vivid. The participants appear knowledgeable, but they express opinions rather than present information. They are an international group, and their occupations are very diverse, yet they converse as peers. The reprint in the Post is actually more typical of blogs than the original material on Almagor's website, for Almagor lists his sources (including academic articles) and writes fairly long essays.

    I haven't noticed any previous occasion when a great American newspaper chose to reprint portions of a blog as part of its editorial content. Of course, more people are already visiting the most popular blogs than reading any article in the Post. Nevertheless, I presume that newspaper editors retain a sense of professional superiority over bloggers, so the appearance of a blog in the "Outlook" section is a symbolic moment.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    April 13, 2004

    expanding a community website

    Working mainly with high school students, we have begun building a community website. Our ultimate goal is more ambitious: to make the website part of a whole independent, non-profit association called an "Information Commons." The Commons would cooperate with peer associations in other communities, sharing software and ideas.

    One of our latest ideas is to provide web hosting and design services to selected nonprofits that want to be nested within the Prince Georges Information Commons website. We would also offer several features to these local nonprofits--and to others that prefer to maintain independent websites.

    Each feature would come in the form of an icon and some explanatory text that organizations would include on their own sites. The icon would incorporate our logo. Thus The Prince Georges Information Commons would include all sites that use these icons.

    The available features might include:

  • A user survey. Information collected on each site would be deposited in a single database, accessible to all participating organizations. We would be especially interested in collecting voluntary data about residents' civic and social interests, so that individuals could be recruited for civic work.

  • An events calendar. The full version would appear only on www.princegeorges.org, but any participating organization could contribute events. The icon on their sites would link to the calendar on the main Commons site.

  • A group blog, with posts contributed by leaders of the participating nonprofits; anyone could contribute comments.

  • A map, with clickable icons showing the geographical location of all the participating groups.
  • permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    April 9, 2004

    a local open-access journal

    Here's an idea that some colleagues and I are going to try to promote at the University of Maryland. The University (or perhaps the University and Prince George's County, where we are located) would launch a peer-reviewed journal for high-quality research on the community. Anyone would be eligible to submit articles, maps, datasets, and images, but submissions would be peer-reviewed and publication standards would be high. The central administration of the University would promote the journal as a prestigious publication venue for faculty. Although this website would not have the status of a major disciplinary journal, its quality would be high and it would advance several core purposes for the University (see below). Therefore, the central administration would ask departments to treat it as the equivalent of high-status specialized publications for tenure and promotion purposes.

    In order to increase the value of the publication for community residents, it could be linked to a website that also provided: research summaries written for lay audiences (perhaps in Spanish as well as English); basic information about the County; links to other online resources; and open forums for public discussion.


  • To encourage faculty (at the University of Maryland and elsewhere) to produce research about this community, thereby improving the Countys understanding of its own problems and assets and supporting economic development and good government.

  • To enhance the Universitys reputation for community service and citizenship, in keeping with our Land-Grant charter.

  • To develop an internationally recognized new venue for scholarship, a model for other major research universities.

  • Universities are experimenting with new forms of free, open-access digital publication, motivated by the soaring costs of journal subscriptions and the enormous positive potential of free, online publishing. For example, the University of California has created the exemplary California Digital Library, and MIT provides its course materials free for the world to use, gambling that this giveaway of high-quality material will enhance its reputation. To the best of our knowledge, no other university has developed a free online publication focused on its own community, and this could become a model.

    Any group that was involved in establishing this journal would need to discuss and answer the following questions:

    What is the geographical scope: Prince Georges County; the Washington Metro area, or the State of Maryland?

    What is the disciplinary reach: The social sciences? The social sciences and the humanities? All the liberal arts? The liberal arts and the fine arts?

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    April 2, 2004

    the Scholarly Communications Commons

    (Bloomington, IN) The category of "scholarly communications" includes books and journal articles; datasets, maps, images, and software; and informal exchanges such as discussions at meetings, emails, blogs, gossip, and even resumes and letters of recommendation. Almost all of this material can now be digitized and stored perpetually for anyone to use. Knowledge is a "non-rivalrous" good; if I take some, there isn't less for you. In fact, it is often cumulative: knowledge is worth more the more it is used, and each item becomes more valuable the more other items are also available. Thus knowledge can function as a "commons," a public resource. On the other hand, there are problems. The main one is probably the "provisioning problem": finding a way to pay for, or otherwise encourage, the creation of free goods.

    It's easy to envision better forms of scholarly communications than we have today. For example, imagine that journals gave their articles away free online. They'd have to cover editorial and electronic-storage costs, but imagine that they charged their prospective authors submission fees--and universities and funders covered those fees for their own employees/grantees. The total cost to universities would be much lower than under the current system, in which academic libraries pay expensive journal subscriptions. Moreover, anyone with an Internet connection could get free access to all the published information.

    But--how can we move from our current system to this superior one? At present, every university must subscribe to major journals; and every budding scholar must submit his or her best articles to the same prestigious publications. Universities cannot easily come up with more money to pay submission fees to new "open-access" electronic journals. Besides, if they do pay submission fees, then other universities will benefit from the free scholarship without paying.

    This is just one collective-action problem. Consider another: If scholars, universities and/or publishers post free online copies of copyrighted articles (as I do on this site), then who is responsible for keeping these copies online at stable addresses for the long term? How will this be paid for?

    Peter Suber runs an excellent blog on these questions.

    permanent link | comments (4) | category: Internet and public issues

    March 2, 2004

    a caution about the "commons"

    "Commons" are various types of resources that are either owned by no one (e.g., the oceans and the Internet), or owned jointly by some community. There are many advantages to commons. They can be free, diverse, communitarian, egalitarian, creative, and democratic. We can cite examples of commons that meet each of these criteria. But chances are, the various goods that we expect from commons will conflict in actual cases. For example, there are highly communitarian commons in which everyone knows everyone else; strong social pressures ensure that all contribute genuine goods to the common pool. These commons are communitarian, but not free or diverse. Then there are extremely libertarian commons, like the Internet, in which diversity, creativity, and freedom are rife, but many people free-ride or pollute the common pool with spam and viruses; and trust is low. There are commons that are democratic in the sense that everyone has an equal vote on policies the affect the whole, but if such votes are binding, then there may not be much individual liberty. I am not convinced that there are commons that meet all the desirable criteria at once.

    These are familiar tensions that we see in the design of all institutions. I believe it is important to acknowledge them when we champion the commons, or else it will look like a panacea when it is not.

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: Internet and public issues

    February 13, 2004

    the commons and youth development

    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.

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: Internet and public issues

    January 29, 2004


    There'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.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    January 27, 2004

    online organizations

    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).

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: Internet and public issues

    January 14, 2004

    young people and Internet campaigns

    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 ads”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 (red bars) from other youth (blue).

    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

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    December 9, 2003

    the real origins of the Internet

    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.

    There is also a story that starts with the first mechanical computers and concludes with modern handheld devices for browsing the Web (this is the hardware side of the Internet's genealogy). And there's a history that starts from the earliest operating systems and concludes with Windows and Linux, by way of Xerox and Bell Telephone.

    For ideological reasons, I like the story that starts with ARPA. That was a federal agency that used taxpayer money, which suggests that the Internet belongs to us (collectively). However, it's simply untrue that the Federal Government created the Internet, when so much of its value arose from other sources. The 'net is ours in a different way, more as a folk culture belongs to the group that gradually built it over the generations.

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: Internet and public issues

    November 13, 2003

    websites that calculate ideology

    In response to yesterday's post about websites that will calculate your ideology for you, Nels Lindahl emailed me about a site called The Political Compass. This is the most sophisticated and thoughtful example of the genre, in my opinion. One of its great virtues is its two-dimensional understanding of ideology, which is much better than a simple left-right scale. I took the quiz and came out as a moderately leftist social libertarian, similar to Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. I'm happy to accept that score.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: Internet and public issues

    November 12, 2003

    political ideology websites

    This summer, I began work on a website that would ask visitors some questions and then tell them their ideology. I got caught up with the technical difficulties and never completed the project. However, I believe it could be useful, since most people I know use ideology as a heuristic. That is, we don't have the time to make a very precise and nuanced evaluation of each candidate for each office. Instead, we start with the assumption that we are liberals, conservatives, moderates, libertarians, feminists, environmentalists, or proponents of some other ideology, and then we use cues in the candidates' speech and behavior to decide which politicians come closest to our ideology. CIRCLE surveys show that those young people who have no ideology do not vote, which suggests that this shortcut is essential.

    There are some websites that use a quiz format to generate an ideological profile. I have found a Party Matchmaking Quiz and a 2004 American Presidential Selector. The World's Smallest Political Quiz is fairly trivial, but the Ideology Selector is more ambitious. The Political Quiz Show uses an old question battery but is now online.

    A few observations: First, the ideological spectrum tends to be presented as unidimensional (left-right), whereas the real political map is more complicated. (By the way, a complicated view of politics makes the programming task more difficult, because ideology can't be measured on a 1-100 scale). Second, even though the quizzes aren't very serious, they may be too hard, because they ask for opinions about official policies which people may never have heard of. I would prefer to see questions about underlying values and social problems. Finally, there should be some feedback. People should be shown what ideology they seem to endorse and then presented with a general description of that ideology and its rivals. If they agree with the general description, then their specific views are consistent with their overall philosophy, and they can go forth and vote. If, however, there is some tension, then they should be invited to develop their thinking . (For those with a taste for political philosophy, this would be a way of implementing John Rawls' theory of reflective equilibrium.)

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    October 10, 2003

    new work on the commons

    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.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    October 1, 2003

    Sunstein was right

    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 are very interested in public issues and those who are not interested. Motivated citizens benefit from the availability of news and opinion online. Unmotivated ones can ignore the broader world much more then in the past, when they relied on TV for entertainment and the newspaper for want ads and crossword puzzles. Whether they liked it or not, in those days they saw 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 is right, then those who start off uninterested in politics will be less informed and therefore less likely to participate once they gain Internet access. Now a scholar named Markus Prior has demonstrated that Internet access indeed 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 do not have net access.) His article is entitled "Liberated Viewers, Polarized Voters: The Implications of Increased Media Choice for Democratic Politics," and it's in the Good Society.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    September 18, 2003

    the Net and participation

    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.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    August 26, 2003

    newspapers vs. websites

    (Still from Camden): 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.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    August 20, 2003

    Mei-Po Kwan

    If you're interested in how GIS (computer mapping) technology can help us understand human beings' use of their physical environment, check out the 3-D GIS Gallery of Professor Mei-Po Kwan, a geographer at Ohio State. These are beautiful images, and potentially useful too.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    August 5, 2003

    smart mobs

    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.")

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    August 2, 2003

    against artificial intelligence

    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.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    August 1, 2003

    working on a website

    I reported some time ago that a publisher was talking to me about writing a very quick "issues guide" for new voters, to be published in the fall. They actually sent me a contract, which I decided to sign, and then they withdrew the offer because of qualms about marketing. So now I'm considering writing the same material and giving it away on a website. I think I could persuade friends in the civic-engagement business to publicize the site, and the resulting traffic would be enough to justify my labor.

    I'd like the website to be quite interactive. In particular, I'd like visitors to answer a bunch of questions and see an initial political profile, which they could then modify in the light of the information and perspectives presented on the website. The progamming for this quiz would be a breeze for someone who know what she was doing. And it would be a fairly cheap application to buy from a programmer. But I don't know what I'm doing, and I don't have any money to pay for custom code. I spent quite a bit of time this week finding and downloading "freeware" that was almost right, but not exactly. In the process, I figured out that a Java script would do the trick: no need for a database. I also decided that I could learn how to write the script without pouring my time into a sinkhole. So I bought a Java script manual and I'm busy learning it. The last time I wrote code was about 1984; the language was Basic, the computer was an Atari, and I was in high school. I wasn't especially into it (I was always a humanities kind of geek, not a techie); but it had an appeal then and it has an appeal now.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    July 4, 2003

    limitations of the Dean model

    Apparently, Gov. Howard Dean's extraordinary fundraising success is due to the Internet. In a broadcast email (read full text here), 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:

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    June 20, 2003

    a community blog

    I just realized that for the last two weeks I have been absent-mindedly dating my blog entries in May instead of June. The blog has been up-to-date, but it has appeared to be month old. I suppose that the people who visited during that period will think this blog is dead and won't come back to read this message. Maybe it's time for me to use some automated software ...

    On a less embarrassing note, we are thinking of creating an "arts blog" for Prince George's County. We would recruit several residents, each with a deep interest in a different aspect of the county's arts scene. We would give them training and ask them to post at least weekly with news, reviews, and commentary. This would be an interesting experiment in blogging within a geographical community, particularly one that's not particularly high-tech. It would also be a small contribution to the County's efforts to develop as an arts center. I think these efforts are promising. The communities closest to Washington are affordable, near a major university, and culturally diverse—perfect for artists. We have to be careful not to gentrify the area in a way that displaces the current residents. But if arts development is handled right, it could bring new resources into the community while preserving its diversity.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

    June 16, 2003

    the printing press didn't cause a translation revolution

    Many people believe that the Church suppressed the translation of the Bible into modern languages during the Middle Ages, but the invention of the printing press gave people an unblockable means of access to Scripture. This story is often cited to show that institutions are dangerous because they try to control knowledge, but technological innovation enhances freedom.

    I am no expert on this subject, but I would suggest some grounds for caution: —The Bible was legally translated into certain modern languages, from Slavonic to Old English, starting before the year 1,000. (See this page; and I saw a beautiful medieval French Bible at this exhibition.) —To be sure, there were edicts against translation in the 16th century and later, and the Catholic Church developed a reputation for obscurantism in modern times because the Mass was only said in Latin until 1962. However, the Church became reactionary after the Council of Trent (1545-63); this attitude should not be read back onto the Middle Ages. —The Wykliffe Bible was banned and burned, but not because it was written in English; rather it was considered distorted by a specific heresy. —It was very hard to translate into the vernacular until the late middle ages, because modern languages were only gradually developing and gaining enough vocabulary to render the Bible. There was no such thing as "Italian" or "German" in 1250; instead there were hundreds of local dialects, each spoken in a small area, and most lacking rich vocabularies. —No medieval Western European Christians knew Greek or Hebrew, so they would have had to translate from the Latin translation by St. Jerome. It took brilliant Renaissance scholarship (and an infusion of Greek experts after Consantinople fell to the Turks) before there was a reliable original from which to translate. People who emphasize technology as a historical factor tend to overlook the profound linguistic and literary innovations that were required before a first translation could be made. —The Latin Bible was not secret; Latin was the language of literate people throughout Europe. —The Church invested tremendous resources in popularizing the Bible through painting cycles, stained glass windows, "picture Bibles," passion plays, and readings in churches, including huge, broad-aisled Franciscan and Dominican churches that were designed to hold mass audiences. (These were "communications technologies" of great power.) —Some modern critics assume that the Church wanted to control the original text of the scriptures because then it could withhold the radical parts. I could be wrong, but I would guess that popular passion plays and Franciscan sermons actually emphasized the radical messages of the original Bible.

    All of this matters because it casts doubt on some widespread modern assumptions about power, institutions, and technology.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues , fine arts

    June 11, 2003

    two contributions to the Commons

    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.
    3. permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

      June 9, 2003

      building a constituency for the Commons

      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.

      permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

      June 4, 2003

      resources for the commons

      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.

      permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

      June 3, 2003

      youth media

      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.")

      permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

      May 27, 2003

      a "gift" from Bill Gates?

      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.

      permanent link | comments (1) | category: Internet and public issues

      May 8, 2003

      online privacy

      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.

      permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

      April 30, 2003

      medical information on federal websites

      My blog is listed as "exemplary" on the blog of Dr. John Gøtze, a Danish guy. At the risk of appearing to logroll, I would heartily endorse "Gotzeblogged" (as he calls his blog) for providing relatively technical (yet accessible) information relevant to e-democracy and e-government.

      There has been a lot of controversy about specific cases in which medical information was changed on government websites, allegedly because of the political or moral biases of the incumbent administration. I have some thoughts about what to do about this problem—if it is a problem. For now, here are the relevant facts, as far as I can tell:

      In 2002, various agencies of the United States Government removed information about condom use and abortion from their Websites, allegedly because elected politicians favored sexual abstinence before marriage and opposed abortion on moral or religious grounds. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) had posted information denying a link between abortion and breast cancer, but Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) objected, calling this denial "scientifically inaccurate and misleading to the public." The NCI Website was then changed to say (for a time) that the evidence was "inconclusive," until a scientific review panel required the Website to reinstate its original language. Likewise, the Website of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention removed its positive assessment of condoms' role in preventing the transmission of disease and removed citations of evidence showing that education about condoms did not lead to earlier or more sexual activity. After the removal of these statements was criticized, some similar material reappeared online with the following text added in bold: "The surest way to avoid transmission of sexually transmitted diseases is to abstain from sexual intercourse, or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and you know is uninfected."

      This last sentence is literally true. However, critics disagree with the strategy and motives that they see lying behind such statements. Participants in this controversy divide into two camps. Some believe that it is the responsibility of public health professionals to reduce the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases, especially HIV/AIDS. Private, voluntary behavior that does not transmit such diseases—or otherwise increase morbidity and mortality—is not the business of medicine. For this group, it seems best to advocate condom-use aggressively. Universal condom-use is a more realistic goal than universal abstinence, and condoms generally prevent the spread of disease. Caveats about the effectiveness of condoms, like the one in bold on the revised website, may have the effect of discouraging condom use. As Representative Waxman wrote in an official complaint, the website was "carefully edited to deny the public important information about the role condoms play in reducing sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancies."

      Another group, however, believes that there are two evils to be minimized: (1) the transmission of dangerous disease, and (2) pre- or extra-marital sex, which is bad in itself. Ed Vitagliano, who represents the conservative American Family Association, said, "Science shows that condoms are not 100 percent effective, and offer no protection for certain sexually transmitted diseases like the human papilloma virus and to a lesser extent chlamydia and herpes …. We fall on the side of safety, encouraging children to wait until marriage, not only for moral reasons, but also for scientific reasons" (emphasis added). For this group, it makes sense to advocate abstinence, since this is a good in itself as well as a means to avoid spreading various diseases. Wholehearted, public advocacy of condom-use may strike such people as tacit support for non-marital sex. They disliked the website that was written under the Clinton Administration, seeing it as morally biased in favor of promiscuity. The other side in the debate, however, saw the revised text as morally biased in the opposite direction, and the conflict led to the current text, which still offends some observers.

      Sources: Robert B. Bluey "HHS Defends Its Advice About Condoms, Abortion," www.cnsnews.com, December 27, 2002; Adam Clymer, "Critics Say Government Deleted Sexual Material From Web Sites to Push Abstinence," The New York Times, November 26, 2002, p. A18; Lawrence M. Krauss, "The Citizen-Scientist's Obligation to Stand Up for Standards," The New York Times, April 22, 2003, p. D3; Adam Clymer, "U.S. Revises Sex Information, and Fight Goes On," The New York Times, December 27, 2002, p. A15.

      permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

      April 18, 2003

      talking about the commons at Berkeley

      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.

      permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

      April 17, 2003

      a new threat to open access

      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.

      permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

      April 15, 2003

      the commons & common carriers

      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.

      permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

      March 17, 2003

      local government & online civil society

      "Reduction in Civics Classes Mirrors Decline in Youth Vote": this is a pretty good article on youth civic engagement in yesterday's Boston Globe.

      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.

      permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

      March 10, 2003

      local governments and independent civic websites

      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."

      permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

      February 21, 2003

      medical information online

      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.

      permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

      February 3, 2003

      the "gold standard" for medical information

      I spent some time writing my article about Medline as a "gold standard" of medical advice and information of the Internet. No individual knows enough about medicine to make a direct assessment of the information presented on this huge portal, which adds half a million new scientific references every year. To decide if the material on Medline is reliable and useful, we cannot apply what my friend Anton Vedder calls "primary epistemic criteria," such as "consistency, coherence, accuracy, and accordance with observations." But we can use what he calls "secondary epistemic criteria," and they are all in Medline's favor. We can easily see that it is well-funded, separated from profit-seeking companies, and run by distinguished professional organizations and bodies.

      So should every American who goes online for medical information consult only Medline and those sites to which Medline links? One problem is that government officials, including medical doctors, may have political agendas. In 2002, various agencies of the United States Government removed information about condom use and abortion from their Websites, allegedly because elected politicians favored sexual abstinence before marriage and opposed abortion on moral or religious grounds. For example, the National Cancer Institute had posted information denying a link between abortion and breast cancer until an anti-abortion Member of Congress objected, calling it "scientifically inaccurate and misleading to the public." Another federal Website removed its positive assessment of condoms' role in preventing the transmission of disease. After the removal was criticized, similar material reappeared online with the following additional text (in bold): "The surest way to avoid transmission of sexually transmitted diseases is to abstain from sexual intercourse. …" A liberal Member of Congress said, "We're concerned that their decisions are being driven by ideology and not science." The President of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America put the charge more strongly: "They are gagging scientists and doctors. They are censoring medical and scientific facts. It's ideology and not medicine." [See Adam Clymer, "Critics Say Government Deleted Sexual Material From Web Sites to Push Abstinence," The New York Times, November 26, 2002, p. A18; and Adam Clymer, "U.S. Revises Sex Information, and Fight Goes On," The New York Times, December 27, 2002, p. A15.]

      There is controversy about the reasons behind these particular choices to post, remove, and revise online information. However, we need not resolve the facts in these cases to see that government Websites may be written on the basis of "ideology and not medicine." Actually, all science is thoroughly imbued with normative choices about what is important to study, what outcomes should be valued, and how much risk to tolerate. Thus a more sophisticated critic might say something like the following: "The Federal Government presents its medical websites as a 'gold standard' and claims that nothing but dispassionate science determines decisions about what to include. In reality, all medical advice involves an element of normative judgment, whether deliberate or unconscious. However, because government Websites are lavishly funded and linked to the organized medical profession, they threaten to monopolize discourse about important topics. Hence, we demand that these Websites disclose their normative or ideological leanings and refer explicitly to alternative perspectives."

      permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

      January 30, 2003

      the public interest media groups

      I agreed today to serve on the dissertation committee of a graduate student who wants to study the political strategy of the "progressive" public-interest groups that lobby for changes in federal communications policy. These groups (the so-called "geektivists") are concerned about the way the Internet is regulated, legal treatment of software monopolies, excessive intellectual property rights, and erosion of privacy. I know them well; I have often been the sole academic at Washington strategy meetings involving their issues. I encouraged the student's dissertation, because I am dissastisfied with the general approach of the progressive national groups—an approach that derives from Ralph Nader and the other consumer advocates of the early 1970s. They analyze complex issues to determine what is in the "public interest"; identify enemies; "expose" their crimes and misdemeanors; develop a simple, marketable "message" through public opinion research, and then "mobilize" popular support by making people angry. I find this approach ethically dubious, because it isn't sufficiently democratic (respectful of ordinary people's opinions and capacities) or deliberative (willing to recognize alternative points of view). By making people angry, it often discourages them or turns them away from politics. Above all, approach tends to fail when pitted against professional corporate lobbying campaigns. Thus I think that the proposed dissertation could be useful for activists well beyond the telecommunications field.

      permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues , revitalizing the left

      January 21, 2003

      standardizing medicine

      A bad day for blogging, because I'm very busy with the technical details of preparing our joint report with the Carnegie Corporation, the Civic Mission of Schools. Choosing paper stock is not interesting to write about. I did quickly email the National Library of Medicine to ask about the budget and mission statement for Medline. The reason is that I am supposed to work with some Dutch colleagues on a project concerning "the reliability of medical information on the Internet." (We are funded by the Netherlands government, which is one reason I took the job.) The tension I hope to explore is between medicine as a standardized discipline and the Internet as a wide-open medium. Medicine has been standardized because there is supposed to be "one best treatment" for a given condition (when fully described), based on the best scientific evidence available at the time. Although physicians still have great discretion and often offer divergent advice, powerful forces work to standardize medicine. It is illegal to practice medicine without a license or to use or sell regulated drugs without a prescription. To gain a medical license, one must pass through an elaborate training and socialization process, including graduation from an accredited medical school and apprenticeship under experienced physicians. One then bears marks of membership in an exclusive body: diplomas on the office wall, a white lab coat, an expectation that one is to be addressed as "doctor." The Internet, poses a threat—not only to these professional prerogatives—but also to the "one best treatment" ideal. Someone who wants to locate medical information or advice online can easily find herself looking at a mix of official recommendations and highly eccentric ideas promoted by laypeople. It is considerably harder to tell the difference between official and unofficial advice than it was in the old days, when the main sources of information were people in white coats and refereed journals. In response, the National Library of Medicine, a $250 million/year federal agency, has created a single Website that lays out the "one best treatments." I am going to try to assess the result. To put my basic question boldly: should we hope that everyone who goes online for medical advice goes to Medline? If yes, what policies can the government adopt to channel people there? If no, why not?

      permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

      January 20, 2003

      with Volokh, Reynolds, and Balkin

      A little more than two weeks ago, I moderated a panel at the Association of American Law Schools Conference. Two of the panelists were famous bloggers (so I'll use their full names): Glenn Reynolds and Eugene Volokh. I had not selected the panel—Amitai Etzioni had arranged the whole event—and I was so ignorant about blogging that I failed to mention their blogs when I introduced these two panelists. (Meeting them may partly explain why I got into this business.) In any case, I have continued to think a lot about the discussion that evening.

      First of all, I've been thinking about public engagement. Professor Volokh graduated from UCLA with a BS in computer science at the age of 15, and then worked as programmer for some time before he became a law school professor. I asked him why he made the switch, and he explained that he wanted to lead a "public life" by testifying, writing opinion pieces for newspapers, etc. This kind of opportunity has a certain appeal for me, too, although I'm not sure that I could break into the mass media even if I tried—and I don't try very hard. The reason I don't try is that I want to lead a different kind of "public life." My goal is to help build and sustain public institutions or communities. That is quite different from expressing opinions (even informed and interesting ones) on broad matters of national or international concern. Institutions don't primarily need people to express opinions; they need organizational work and products appropriate to their mission. Also, the institutions within which someone like me can have an impact are necessarily limited in scope. They either work in particular geographical locations or else they deal with fairly narrow issues. Unless you're the Pope or the president, you can't work through institutions and deal directly with all the great issues of the world. So I think that there is a trade-off between addressing a big audience and working within organizations. I seem to have chosen the latter course.

      Second, the panel was populated by First Amendment lawyers, and for them 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.

      permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues

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